Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Today's column: Pitcher This: Pop the cork on something new this year

If alcohol has an official, traditional, front-and-center place in any holiday celebration, it's New Year's Eve.

Sadly, most people give beer the boot with the old year, and ring in the new with champagne. But any committed beer lover should resolve to celebrate with something brewed, not vinified.

Anyone thinking here that beer just doesn't seem special enough to take center stage at the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31 isn't thinking broadly enough about beer. There's a style for every occasion, and New Year's Eve is no exception.

A number of beer types work well for the traditional celebration, and are suitably rare to lend dignity to the moment. Perhaps most importantly, many are packaged in oversized, wine-style bottles. You can even enjoy the ceremonial, climactic pop of the cork at the stroke of midnight.

Belgium is the source of many of these styles, and the inspiration for many good interpretations by American brewers. Most are variations of strong dark and strong pale ales, often bottle-conditioned, that is with yeast still active after the beer is packaged, allowing it to continue fermenting, increasing its alcohol content and improving its flavor the longer it's stored. They're brewed in varying strengths, with the stronger versions labeled "dubbel" and "tripel."

Seven breweries in Belgium and the Netherlands have helped to make those styles famous. They're operated by Trappist monasteries that have brewed for centuries to help fund their religious work. Of these, beers from the Chimay Brewery are probably the most widely available here.

On this side of the Atlantic, the French Canadian company Unibroue makes an excellent line of Belgian-style ales, including a tripel they label La Fin Du Monde (French for "The end of the world") — a good choice for the end of the year. Pennsylvania's Victory Brewing makes an excellent tripel they call Golden Monkey, and New York's Brewery Ommegang has made a booming business recreating Belgian styles.

Most of the above beers and styles are light in character, with light, rich heads and a delicateness that make them a good substitute for champagne. There's even a style of beer brewed to mimic the methods that produce champagne, but good luck finding them.

Actually, all of these beers will be impossible to find on store shelves in Alabama, as most range from 7 to 12 percent in alcohol content — above Alabama's limit of 6 percent. Even the bottle size is restricted by law here, with nothing larger than 16 ounces allowed for sale. Meanwhile, Georgia's alcohol limit is higher —14 percent — and you'll have little trouble finding the 750 milliliter bottles there. I don't advocate breaking the law, but I will note that the Peach State's ban on fireworks doesn't seem to prevent citizens of that fine state driving here for their New Year's Eve supplies.

Of course, it may be too late to follow all the advice offered in this column for tonight, but look at it this way: You've now got a year to plan how to ring in 2010.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Today's column: Joy and good beer

So you're shopping for a beer lover, and it just doesn't seem right to put a six pack under the tree. As if there was something wrong with that, the following suggestions ought to help fill the holiday with cheer — or, rather, cheers.

Glassware

Beer tastes best when poured into the proper glass. No true beer fan can ever have too many glasses, or too many types — until room in the cupboard starts to run out (helpful tip — do not ask your spouse if it's OK to toss that gravy boat to make room).

The Web site BeerAdvocate.com sells what it calls "the Savvy Six-Pack" for $37.99. It includes six different glasses, each the best choice a different style of brew. There's a tulip for imperial India pale ales and Belgian strong ales, a 23-ounce imperial pint for proper service of British ales, a curvy hefeweizen with room for the generous head of wheat beers, a tall pilsner to show off the color and carbonation of lagers, a dimpled mug for many a German brew, and a stemmed cervoise that's good for many Belgian styles.

If that's too much, or if you've run out of time to wait

on shipping, many local retailers sell sets of simple, straight-sided 16-ounce pint glasses. These work fine for just about anything you're pouring, and have the benefit of keeping one from looking too fancified, if that's a concern. You'll often find them emblazoned with logos or ads for Guinness, makers of the famous Irish stout.

Reading material

Anyone who's been opened to the wider world of beer could probably use some guidance through its more obscure corners.

A few publishers are providing that guidance on a regular basis with magazines. The Web site mentioned above also publishes a monthly Beer Advocate magazine with lots of features and photography in a well-designed format. All About Beer, published every two months, is another good resource. It just produced a special issue, available in at least one local bookstore, that is a handy reference to most of the beer styles brewed today.

The little things

Bottle openers, coasters, bar towels, caps, T-shirts — you name it, there's probably one with a brewery logo on it being sold in a gift shop somewhere ready to be stuffed in a stocking.

Why not?

Of course, the perfect gift for any beer lover is more beer. And if a six pack still seems wrong to you, a short drive can provide something extra-special.

Alabama law prevents any beer in a bottle bigger than 16 ounces from being sold here. That cuts out many of the finer concoctions from Europe's hallowed brewers and America's innovative brewmasters. Some are sold only in half-liter- to liter-size bottles, and served more like wine.

Not that I'm advocating the importation of alcohol, but just across the state line, Georgia has no container-size or alcohol-content restrictions. Any number of retailers could provide a great gift — for that out-of-state recipient, of course — to celebrate with on New Year's Eve.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Those recipes I promised (Part II)

As promised, here's the second of three chili & stew recipes mentioned in last week's column. (The first is here.) Star Features Editor Tosha Jupiter has made this for just about all of our semi-regular chili days in the newsroom for a few years now. It's one of my favorites.

She typically uses an amber lager such as Michelob Amber Bock or Sam Adams Boston Lager, which sets this recipe apart from the porter- and stout-based stuff mentioned in the column. I think the bittersweet chocolate here must take the place of the darker malts in porter and stout.

I pulled the text of this recipe from The Star's Starbite food blog, maintained by Laura Tutor. It was in a post from our most recent chili day, where you can also find my chili con carne (which doesn't call for beer, but goes well with a few).

Chocolate Chili Con Carne
3 pounds beef chuck
Freshly ground black pepper
Gray salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, plus 1 teaspoon
1 teaspoon ground cumin, plus 2 teaspoons
2 tablespoons chili powder, plus 2 tablespoons
Masa harina (Mexican corn flour)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup lard
4 red onions, peeled and minced
6 cloves garlic, minced
4 jalapeno peppers, sliced thin with seeds, stems removed
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 to 3 bottles (12 ounce) beer
1 can (12 ounce) diced tomato in juices
1 quart chicken stock
3 cans (12 ounce) black beans
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, cut into large chunks

Cut the chuck into 3/4-inch pieces, or, to save time, have your butcher do this for you. Place the chuck in a large bowl. Season liberally with pepper (about 20 turns of the pepper grinder) and grey salt to taste- remember half of this will come off in the pan. Season with 1/2 teaspoon of the cinnamon, 1 teaspoon of the cumin and 2 tablespoons of the chili powder. Mix this well and coat the meat with the masa harina (this is a ground hominy flour common to Mexican cuisine and easily found in the Mexican food sections of many grocery stores). The flour will thicken the sauce and give it a specific, Mexican taste.

Preheat a cast iron Dutch oven on the stove over medium high heat. Add the olive oil and then the coated meat, spreading it evenly so it covers the bottom of the Dutch oven in 1 layer. Leave it alone, without turning it, so the meat will brown and caramelize. Meanwhile, add the lard. The meat has a lot of moisture in it, so a good amount of steam will come from the pan before it is caramelized. As it browns, slowly turn each piece with tongs.

Once all sides are caramelized, remove the meat from the pan with a slotted spoon and place on a cookie sheet to cool, leaving juices in the Dutch oven to saute vegetables. Add the onions and garlic and saute for 5 minutes over medium heat until they start to caramelize and get soft. Add the jalapenos and allow to cook for 2 more minutes until soft. Add the tomato paste. Some of the same spices as were used on the meat will be used in the sauce. Add the remaining 2 teaspoons of the cumin, 1 teaspoon of the cinnamon, the oregano, and 2 heaping tablespoons of the chili powder. Add beer. Stir to incorporate everything. Add diced tomatoes, and stir. Then add the reserved meat. Add chicken stock.

Simmer for 1 1/2 hours until meat is wonderfully tender. Strain juice from the black beans, add the beans to the chili pot and bring up to simmer. Then add chunks of bittersweet chocolate. Stir until it melts. Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days.

Friday, December 5, 2008

What's brewing this weekend

I've got a crowd of around 15 coming over this weekend to talk about forming a local alumni group of my college fraternity. I expect there'll be some beer sipped, but in a responsible, adult manner. Even in school we weren't exactly the Animal House crowd.

As for what'll be on offer: I've got some Sweetwater 420 in the fridge finally, picked up on a trip out of town for Thanksgiving, along with some Dogfish Head 90-Minute IPA. There's also still some of the Sam Adams Honey Porter, Abita Turbodog, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and a Hoegaarden or two. Then there's whatever else the other guys decide to bring along.

What will you be sipping this weekend? Where, and with whom?

Those recipes I promised (Part I)

So, it took a day or two, but I've managed to round up the recipes I promised you in Wednesday's column. They get a little long, so I'll divide them up among three posts spread over a few days. The first one is Star multimedia director Justin Thurman's Porter Chili. I haven't tasted it yet, but he's threatening to make another batch soon to share with the newsroom. Above the recipe is a note from Justin.
I feel that the porter brings heartiness to the chili that I don't get from other liquids. I use the porter much like someone would use a beef or chicken stock in a recipe. I drain all ingredients so that the beer is the main liquid in the chili. I love porters, I have used many different ones but Abita Turbo Dog is my favorite. This really worked out well with a chili that I made with venison as the meat.

I remembered a few years ago a man in my home town winning a chili cook-off and he said his secret was beer. Being a beer lover, I thought I would try this but I wanted to use the kind of beers that I drank. Turbo Dog was the first beer that I tried this with and it is still my favorite today.
  • 1 large red onion diced
  • 1 red pepper diced
  • 1 yellow pepper diced
  • 2 pablano peppers diced
  • 2 jalapeno peppers diced
  • 2 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce diced
  • 1 pound of ground venison (beef and bison work as well)
  • 1 pound of bacon
  • The remaining adobo sauce from the chipotle peppers
  • 2 cans red kidney beans drained
  • 2 can black beans drained
  • 1 14.5 ounce can of diced tomatoes drained
  • 2 garlic cloves minced
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon of crushed red pepper
  • 2 bottles of your favorite porter.
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Sauté onions and peppers in olive oil until translucent and add to crock pot. Cook bacon in pan until done, leaving bacon grease in pan. Cook the venison in the bacon grease. Chop bacon and add it and venison to crock pot. Add remaining ingredients and cook on low overnight.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Today's column: Keeping warm with bubbling beer

(Recipes coming soon, btw. -Ben)

With the mercury plunging, a good beer or two may warm you up, once the capillaries in your face relax and turn your cheeks rosy. But that serving temperature — cool to ice cold — might just give you the shivers this time of year.

It's never too cold for a beer, really, but if you're looking for another way to warm up with a cold one, why not heat it in a pot? Of course, it's important to add more ingredients than just the beer.

Winter's chill winds make it the right time for savory, slow-cooked stew or a nice, hot chili. And a bowl of either can benefit from cooking with the right beer.

The dark, roasted flavors of porters and stouts are a big part of many stew and chili recipes.

Porters are ales made with barley that's dried at higher temperatures before the brewing begins, yielding a darker malt. Stouts follow the same model, with some of the barley actually roasted and unmalted for a dry, crisp effect.

Those methods tend to result in full-bodied beers with intense flavors. Adding a bit to a stew can lend a bitter complexity, and some recipes even replace the broth outright with a bottle or two.

Countless beef stew recipes classify themselves as Irish with addition of some the Emerald Isle's most famous export, Guinness Stout. A version from Margaret M. Johnson's Irish Pub Cookbook that credits the Guinness brewery's bar calls for a half pint of the thick, black beer. It swirls with the savory flavor of sirloin cubes browned in oil and butter, and the stout mixes well with the slight tang of carrots, parsnips and turnips.

In chili, stouts' and porters' roasted malts, plus the more intense bitterness from hops, can help to balance the spice from hot peppers. One colleague at The Star uses the Turbodog porter from Louisiana's Abita Brewing Co. in place of beef stock, then adds venison or bison meat for a truly unique flavor, though he says beef works just fine, too.

Another Star staffer (we eat a lot of chili here) uses dark lagers such as Samuel Adams Boston Lager or Michelob Amber Bock in place of inky porters or stouts in a lightly spiced chili recipe. Standing in for the dark complexity of roasted malt: bittersweet chocolate, which helps balance that spice even more.

Slow cooking is a favorite method for many of these dishes, in part because of the way it tenderizes chunked meat and allows seasonings to penetrate the other ingredients. Adding a bit of alcohol only intensifies the tenderizing effect, and the malt and hops can really work their magic given a few extra hours.

Using a slow cooker, though, takes time. Perhaps there's no better way to spend that time than sipping whatever beer didn't make it into the pot. At least the kitchen should be warm.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

What's brewing this weekend: Leftovers

Appropriately for the holiday weekend, I'm just trying to take care of what I've got left in the fridge before beginning a search for something new. So far that's meant some Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (ol' standby) and Abita Turbodog. There's also a Sam Adams Honey Porter or two left in there that I might get around to pouring.

What are you drinking this weekend with your leftover turkey and dressing?

Friday, November 21, 2008

What's brewing this weekend

It's been a rough week here at The Star, and I've never really appreciated the meaning of "Miller Time" more than today.

To that end, my friend who made the big beer run last week is bringing down some of the unconsumed portion of that haul. I'm not sure what's left or what he'll bring, but I remember seeing a bottle of Young's Double Chocolate Stout and a Sweetwater Festive Ale. We're going to stay at my house while our spouses head out to a scrapbooking gathering.

What will you be consuming this weekend, and under what circumstances?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Today's column:Hey, porter: Rich, dark brew is a sweet winter classic

11-19-2008

Since porter derived its name from an early popularity with people who carried things for a living, it's sort of fitting that many people now think of it as a winter beer.

After all, it's this time of year that people are toting loaded shopping bags, hefting big dishes to the feast table and hauling the family off to visit relatives for the holidays.

Or maybe it's that the deep-dark colored ale, with its malty-rich flavor tastes so good alongside all those holiday dishes that tend to appear only near the end of the year — slow-roasted turkey, brown-sugar-encrusted sweet potatoes, any number of sinful deserts.

Porter is said to have taken its name from the hard-working laborers around London where the beer was born in the 18th century. The characteristic dark brown or even black color comes from the special varieties of malted barley, the grain that is the bedrock of most beer. As with all brews, first the barley is soaked to allow the seeds to germinate, then heated to dry it and promote the conversion of starch to alcohol.

For porters and other darker beers, some or all of the barley is dried at higher temperatures, changing the color and flavors of the resulting malt. Generally speaking, the higher the temperature, the darker the malt and the more complex the flavors. Brewers mix and match malts to achieve their desired tastes. "Chocolate" malt can add caramel or vanilla flavors; patent malt is dried hot enough it turns black and picks up an acrid smokiness. Crystal malt is roasted in a rotating drum before the drying process, and can give the resulting beer an extra sweetness.

Porters, like their cousins the stouts, pair well with a number of entrees, and their rich body makes them an excellent base for chili and stew recipes. And all those roasty flavors mean the dark beers are an excellent match for rich deserts, playing much the same role a cup of coffee does alongside a slice of pie or cake. It might sound counter-intuitive, but the next time you pour a glass of porter, hold back just a splash in the bottle and drizzle it over a bowl of vanilla ice cream — you'll never need chocolate syrup again.

Below are a few good porters from American brewers; all can be found either in area restaurant coolers or on local store shelves — at least you won't have to carry them far to get them home.

Sierra Nevada Porter — A good, straight-up basic porter, with a rich taste from chocolate and caramel hops. Naturally for a West-Coast brew (Sierra Nevada is based in Chico, Calif.), bitter hops balance out the sweetness.

Samuel Adams Honey Porter — True to porter's heritage, Boston Beer Co. uses English hops varieties alongside the roasted malts, then sets it all off with a bit of Scottish honey. The brewer suggests trying it alongside glazed ham and roasted vegetables.

Rogue Mocha Porter — This is your dessert beer. With generous doses of chocolate, black and crystal hops, it'll stand up to the richest, gooiest dessert you can serve. Try it with ice cream, as mentioned above; even better with a warm fudge brownie underneath that scoop of vanilla.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Lazy Mag bottles roll into town

Great news, Calhoun County beer fans: Lazy Magnolia's Southern Pecan Brown Ale is now available in bottles here.

After we finished cleaning up the reception hall following the wedding tonight, my fellow groomsman and I headed to the Grub Mart at Mountain & Pelham in Jacksonville (click for a map) to restock my nearly empty fridge. I was shocked to see a pile of the Lazy Mag sixers on display in the middle of the floor. The Southern Pecan previously had been available only on tap in a few select places around the county. Props to Supreme Beverage for bringing the good stuff our way,

Anyone seen the bottles available anywhere else around town?

Friday, November 14, 2008

What's brewing this weekend

A good buddy of mine is getting married this weekend, and both he and my fellow groomsman are beer fans. There's expected to be a little consumption tonight, as you might already have assumed. The other groomsman arrived from Georgia today with a load of assorted goodies, including a number of winter seasonals - Sweetwater's Festive Ale and Sierra Nevada's Celebration Ale among them.

I'm unsure if there' s to be any other brew on offer at the rehearsal dinner (it's got a tailgate party theme), or at the reception, but as we relax later tonight for our friend's last night of bachelorhood, we'll have something to warm us while the temperature drops outside.

What will you be sipping this weekend, and where? Click below to comment.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Cleburne County may not be ready for bars (and I'm back)

Cleburne County residents voted Nov. 4 to go "wet," ending that county's longtime unique "moist" status, under which beer could be sold only un-chilled (or "hot" as people keep saying - that just sounds wrong) and sales of hard liquor were prohibited. But the Heflin City Council last night discussed new laws to prevent bars from opening in the city. County Commission officials also are considering restrictive measures.

What do you think?

Meanwhile, how many times have you heard a blogger promise to post more regularly? Well, since technically you could say I'm getting paid to do this, I'll be keeping that promise. It's not like there's no local alcohol news out there to share.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Today's column: The ultimate beer run

Brian Yaeger, admittedly, was introduced to beer the way many young people (perhaps too many and definitely too young) are.

He was a college student, and drank "all the super-cheap stuff" in larger quantities than he should have. A chance to travel Europe for a semester broadened his beer horizons and opened his eyes to all the good stuff available at home.

"It was definitely after a semester abroad when I discovered," he says, "that you could drink it because it tastes good and not because if you drink eight or 10 of them it gets you drunk."

Fast forward a few years, and Yaeger, 34, says his days of mass consumption are long since over. But he is still using travel to experience new beer. The San Francisco-based writer has just published Red, White & Brew: An American Beer Odyssey. The book is an account of a series of road trips he took across the United States, sampling local beer everywhere he went.

He likes beer, of course, and enjoys traveling (he came to the attention of this column after meeting a Calhoun County resident when both were vacationing in Southeast Asia this summer). Put the two together, and both are the better for it.

"It's not so much in seeing the monuments or visiting the friends you're going to see," he says. "Of course, that's the main purpose, the main objective. But the experience of traveling is just made so much richer if you … partake of the local cuisine and drink the local beer. I meet people all the time who make that a big part of their road trip."

Of course, for Yaeger's trips, trying the beer was the main objective. He visited breweries and brewpubs in almost every corner of the country, from America's oldest brewery, D.G. Yuengling & Sons in Pottsville, Penn., (opened in 1829) to one of the newest, Lazy Magnolia Brewing of Kiln, Miss. (opened in 2005).

"It's something you could only do with beer, in a sense," he says. The climate for wine grapes is limited to a few select regions, and only a few areas of the country have a tradition of distilling spirits, he notes. "Beer is the one thing that is made everywhere."

Yaeger is now back on the road, this time touring the country to promote his book. Of course, some of his signings are taking place at breweries and pubs rather than bookshops. On Thursday he'll be in the Atlanta area, at Decatur's Brick Store Pub, 7 p.m. EDT.

That should give Yaeger a chance to finally try beers from Atlanta's Sweetwater Brewing Co. His earlier travels didn't take him through Georgia, and he's wanted to sample their wares for a while now.

If you decide to head over to Atlanta for the book signing, you could make it the first stop on your own brewery road trip. Sweetwater, in Atlanta's midtown, offers free tours and tastings Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays beginning at 5:30 p.m.

Just be sure someone else does the driving.

Friday, September 26, 2008

What's brewing this weekend

A colleague who lives nearer to Birmingham offered to pick me up something this week on his regular trip to Whole Foods. He brought my request with him to the office today - a six pack of Sweetwater IPA, newly legal again in Alabama. The brewers reportedly adjusted the recipe, bringing the ABV back under 6 percent. Now if only someone would start stocking it in Calhoun County (the trucks have to go right past us from Atlanta to Birmingham, after all).

The sixer will be nice to have around for the weekend, though most of my consumption likely will come at the Berman Museum's Suds Fest (see last week's column about it, here). I'll have to hold a couple back for next weekend, when a beer-loving friend from Denver pops in for a visit.

What will you be sipping this weekend, and where? Click below to comment.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Raise a glass to Mr. Leinenkugel

Sad news from Wisconsin today: Bill Leinenkugel, former president of the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co., has died of cancer. There's an obituary available online at annistonstar.com.

Leinenkugel helped his family's company, founded in 1867, survive industry consolidation that saw many other breweries close. A year after he retired in 1987, it merged with giant Miller Brewing, though the fmaily retained substantial control over the brand. It's now Miller's main entry in the craft beer segment that is leading growth in the brewing industry.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

For your 'Fest

Recognizing that the Oktoberfest season is upon us, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Bob Townsend this week runs down a list of seasonal craft brews whose release is timed to coincide with the annual foamy fall frolicking.

For the most part, they look pretty enticing. Shmaltz Brewing's Coney Island Freaktoberfest is a different story. Shmaltz went with a Halloween theme for this one, and may be doing everything in their power to deter you from drinking it: the head is pink, the beer is a "crazy" reddish-tea, and the alcohol content is 6.66 percent. (Mark of the beer?)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

German brewer sells authenticity

There's a story in today's New York Times on Rothaus, a state-owned brewer in Germany that has seen sales double over the last 15 years, while overall beer sales in the country have been declining. The success has come without a single TV or radio commercial. The story says many Germans seem to be drawn to the brand because of its non-corporate image. From the story:

“The ad agencies always wanted to seduce us into making not only a good beer but modern commercials,” said Thomas Schäuble, the head of the brewery and himself a native of the Black Forest region. “But people here in the Wild West of Germany are hard-headed,” he said with a chuckle.

There's also much mention made of the character in the brewery's logo. Birgit Kraft (apparently a German homonym for "beer gives strength"), as she's known, is something of an icon. That's her pictured above.

I don't believe Rothaus exports to the U.S. Has anyone out there reading had the pleasure of a bottle or mug?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Today's column: Brewing it our way

We Americans like to do things our way, even (sometimes especially) if old-world tradition frowns on it.

Exhibit A: the Berman Museum decides to throw an autumnal celebration of beer, holds it on one day in September, and does the whole thing indoors.

Oktoberfest it's not, but then, Anniston ain't exactly Munich.

The museum's fourth annual Autumn Suds Fest is set for Sept. 27 at 6 p.m. The proceeds this year will help support a touring exhibit arriving in October 2009, Mary Lee Bendolph: Gee's Bend Quilts and Beyond.

That national independent streak of ours goes for our beer, too.

For every established European style of beer, there's a few dozen American brewers concocting their own interpretations.

It's very proper that Suds Fest takes place at the museum, where relics from around the world are displayed alongside artifacts of American history. At this year's festival, attendees will get to sample established European beers, many of which epitomize their respective styles, then quaff a version from a domestic brewer.

Expecting that the more-local brew will always seem the worse for comparison with competition from across the pond? Think again. The old bias against American beer may have been closer to the truth in the past, but independent brewers a generation ago began a revolution that is still reverberating through the market. Now, even the big U.S. labels are getting experimental, moving into territory once dominated by imports and smaller insurgent American brewers.

Anheuser-Busch, for example, has been using its Michelob label to bring a range of different styles to market that may be unfamiliar to many American consumers. There's a porter, a hefeweizen and a pale ale. Michelob Marzen will be on hand at the festival, for comparison to the seasonal Oktoberfest offering from the venerable Spaten label from Germany.

Also, Coors has scored a major success with its Blue Moon, a version of a Belgian "white," or wheat-based beer, and a line of co-branded seasonals. Suds Fest participants will get to sample it alongside the "original" Belgian white, Hoegaarden.

Some of the craft brewers leading the major labels down that path will be represented, too. Brooklyn Brewery's Brown Ale will be served alongside the ubiquitous Newcastle Brown Ale from Britain, Sierra Nevada's seasonal Summerfest Lager will match up with the Czech Pilsner Urquell, and Sierra Nevada's porter will stand alongside the Taddy Porter from Britain's Samuel Smith.

Even one Southern brewer makes an appearance, with the 420 Pale Ale from Atlanta's Sweetwater Brewing served next to the U.K.'s Bass Ale.

The beer is being provided by three distributors, Alabama Crown, Bama Budweiser and Supreme Beverage. Served with the suds will be bratwurst and other beer-friendly food. Museum development director Lindie Brown says there will also be darts, giveaways, museum tours and a more social atmosphere than in years past.

To attend, make a reservation ($25 per person or $45 per couple) by calling 237-6261.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Today's column: Suds and sports: a winning combination

The new football season has at least this much in common with the just-concluded Olympic games: Both signaled their start with fire — at Beijing with the lighting of a giant cauldron, here, in a thousand parking lots with the flame of countless grills.

Food and sport are married in America like nowhere else, and nothing shows off that relationship so well as the tailgate parties that surround stadiums coast-to-coast this time of year.

Many of those fiery feasts are fueled, in more ways than one, by beer.

Perhaps in no other environment is beer so frequently used as a cooking ingredient as it is within hearing distance of stadium PA announcers. Of course, gameday chefs and diners may wind up drinking a few brews, too.

The National Beer Wholesalers Association offers at its Web site, http://www.nbwa.org, a number of recipes that involve beer as part of batters, marinades, glazes and sauces. They include, just to get you drooling, porter-glazed grilled sausages, pork skewers with pilsner and spices, stout-marinated sirloin steaks, even a sweet-and-sour potato salad made with bock.

Of course, some of these concoctions can get a little complicated to carry off miles from the comfort of one's kitchen, using the back end of a Chevy step-side as a countertop. Tailgate food is best when kept simple.

And it really doesn't get any easier than two old standbys, classic centerpieces of the moveable football feast: beer-can chicken and beer-bath bratwurst.

The brats can't be beat for flavor or simplicity. Grill the sausages over medium heat for five to 10 minutes, then add them to a stockpot or skillet (you'll need a side burner or extra grill space) filled with already-boiling beer and sliced onions and peppers. Cook another 20 minutes, then serve 'em on yeasty rolls with spicy mustard.

The first step in making beer-can chicken is my favorite: drink half a beer. Next, choose a dry seasoning for your bird and dump a tablespoon or so of it in the can. Then coat the outside of a whole fryer with your seasoning. Carefully insert the can, open-end-up, into the bird's nether regions, then carefully arrange your chicken on the grill, standing upright.

A little bit of extra technology can make the process easier: packing rubber gloves in your tailgate kit makes it much less disgusting to apply the dry rub on-site; a simple wire rack available for about $5 just about anywhere helps to hold the bird upright and the can in place on the grill; a nifty device called the Poultry Pal ($14.95 at beercanchicken.com) holds the bird up even better, helps keep it from burning, and allows you to use your favorite brew, even if it's bottled.

Cook your chicken over low to medium heat until done. That normally takes at least a couple hours, so unless you get the timing right you could miss the kickoff.

Then again, the chicken should be so juicy and tender, you might not really care.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Today's column: A new arrival and heralded return

Beer lovers will have to wait just a little longer to get Alabama brew in bottles, but in the meantime there is a suitable substitute newly available from just a little farther north.

Things are finally brewing again up in Huntsville, as Olde Towne Brewing Co. gets back in business after a fire in July 2007. Founder and brewmaster Don Alan Hankins reports the company is finally filling kegs at its new plant, and Olde Towne is now available from tap handles around the Rocket City.

Meanwhile, Nashville's Yazoo Brewing Co. made its entrance into the state this summer, with six-packs on sale in the Birmingham and Huntsville areas.

Hankins says Olde Towne is preparing for a grand re-opening party Saturday at Huntsville's Lowe Mill, complete with live music, lots of food, and of course the beer.

"This is kind of our payback to the city from us," Hankins said, in recognition of the support local beer fans lent the brewery after the fire. There were community-sponsored fundraisers including a concerts, and lots of e-mails and phone calls from folks eager to learn when Olde Towne would return.

Hankins says the company is filling keg orders through distributors in the Huntsville area first, and plans to follow that with the return of their draft product to Birmingham soon. A hefeweizen, amber ale and pale ale are already available, and a pilsner should make its return this weekend.

Olde Towne's new bottling equipment is expected to arrive by the end of the month. Hankins said the bottled brew will go to Huntsville first sometime in September, and then out to other markets where it was available before the fire, perhaps in November. That would include Calhoun County.

Meanwhile, you'll have to drive to Birmingham or Huntsville to get it, but Yazoo has a hefeweizen, a pale ale and what they bill as a Mexican-influenced version of a German altbier, basically an amber ale, labeled "Dos Perros Ale."

The pale is a bit sweeter than other versions of this style, and has a nicely bitter hops finish. Dos Perros is a hearty brown, with nice mellow malts sure to be enjoyed fans of beers like Newcastle Brown Ale and Lazy Magnolia's Southern Pecan.

As for the future, Olde Towne's Hankins says a series of seasonal brews — draft only — will follow the four standbys. That will likely start this fall with a pumpkin ale, and then something new for the winter, a coffee-and-tea-flavored stout.

For now, both these brands will require some driving for Anniston-area folks to acquire. But be sure to ask the staff at your favorite shops and haunts to stock the beers you'd like to try.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Olde Towne's back, at least in its hometown

Looks like Huntsville's Olde Towne Brewing Co. is back in business. The brewery's Web site says they produced the first keg in their brand-new facility at the end of July. The company is in the midst of a series of Huntsville-area celebrations now. Here's a list from the site:
  • Olde Towne Tasting at 801 Franklin, Wednesday 6-8 p.m.
    801 Franklin, Huntsville, AL; $20 per person. For more details and reservations call 256-519-8019.
  • Olde Towne Brewing Company's Grand Re-Opening Party, Aug. 23 5-11 p.m.
    Lowe Mill, corner of Seminole & 9th Avenue, Huntsville, AL
    Live music & more. Admission is free, donations to be split between the Lowe Mill's Art Endeavors and Free the Hops.
  • Olde Towne Pint Night at the Brick, Aug. 29
    112 Moulton Street East, Decatur, AL
    The Brick Deli is proud to welcome back Olde Towne Brewing Company to Decatur! Join us at the Brick for great food, Rollin' in the Hay on stage and Olde Towne Beer.
Old Towne's original facility burned in a fire last July. They've spent the last year or so finding a site, desigining the new building, buying equipment and getting things rolling. Congrats to 'em, I say!

The Web site lists a number of Huntsville-area restaurants and bars where you can get Olde Towne's stuff. Looks like the retail selection is limited so far. Here's hoping they'll be available statewide soon.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Today's column: The quest for beer with food from wine country

08-06-2008

They're lands of long, hot and dry summers tempered by breezes from the sea.

And they're lands of incredible food — dishes dominated by intensely-flavored herbs, meats and cheeses.

Ah, the sun-soaked shores of the Mediterranean, where the olive trees don't offer a lot of shade, but do provide plenty of oil to flavor the cooking.

The arid, sunny climate that is the source of so much good cooking might inspire one to reach for a cool brew, but finding the right beer to pair with these powerful foods can present a challenge.

Plus there's the fact that the Med is the cradle of Europe's wine culture. It was wine, not ale after all, that Odysseus used to outwit the giant Cyclops and while sailing that dangerous sea centuries ago.

But that doesn't mean the right brew isn't out there, waiting to be discovered and enjoyed alongside a heap of hummus or a load of grilled lamb skewers.

When selecting a beer to enjoy with a meal there are at least a couple different strategies: pick something brewed in the region that inspired the food, or go with something that plays off the food's unique flavors, regardless of where it's brewed.

That second approach is suggested by the beer-food pairing guide published by the Brewers Association, a trade group of American craft brewers. Lamb figures more prominently in Mediterranean meals than other meats. Its stronger flavor is a good match for the higher-alcohol content and robust bitterness of double or imperial India pale ales, according to the pairing guide. There's also British old or strong ales, with bold flavors that some describe as fruity or raisiny. Then there's Scotch ale, also called "wee heavy," with sweeter, maltier characteristics. (Creativity in procurement may be called for, as all of the above styles tend toward higher alcohol contents that are outlawed in Alabama). Lacking any of those, a sweet amber lager like Flying Dog's Old Scratch or a somewhat bitter pale ale like Sierra Nevada's ubiquitous offering might do the trick. Both are available locally.

The other tactic would be to pick a brand name brewed in the country that supplied your feta-festooned salad or chickpea puree. Italian dishes could call for a Peroni Nastro Azzuro, a standard pale lager on local shelves. Finding something brewed under any other Mediterranean flag is a tall task, though. The good news is that pale lagers are the dominant style in much of Europe, and one of the most popular here, as well. That leaves plenty of suitable substitutes, such as Stella Artois, Grolsch, Steinlager or Harp among the imports, or just about anything on the shelf from the well-known domestic brands (Sierra Nevada's seasonal Summerfest Lager is a fine alternative, and was still on some local shelves last week).

Of course, if you have the means and the vacation time, there's the option of going straight to the source, trying the local food and the local beer on an odyssey of your own. Like the ancient Greek hero, you never know where the journey might lead you.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Beer travels well

Pitcher This: Beer travels well

07-23-2008

Traveling is its own reward — the chance to see new things, to get out of one's comfort zone, and of course the pleasure of getting away from work, which I'm sure is a vacation motivator for others (though not for me, honest).

But I take special pleasure in getting out of town because it means trying beers I can't get at home.

Beyond the brews themselves, I like getting the opportunity to sample someone else's beer culture, to see how beer grew out of and into the fabric of local life.

A recent family reunion trip took me to New York State's sparsely populated southwest, a land of dairy farms, cool summers and rolling green hills where residents of northeast Alabama would feel at home.

There, as in the identical country on the other side of the Pennsylvania line, beer has been part of the landscape almost as long as the big red barns that dot the valleys. German immigrants settled in large numbers in New York and Pennsylvania from colonial days and into the 20th century, bringing their brewing tradition with them.

Both states have managed to hang on to much of that heritage, with a few independent breweries still in the hands of the families that founded them. Among them is Straub Brewery of St. Mary's. The family founded it in 1872, though their involvement in brewing can be traced to 1831. They've kept things small, distributing only in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

That's not the case for Matt Brewing of Utica, N.Y., founded in 1888, also by a German immigrant. The company survived the depression and the mid-century consolidation of the beer market, just long enough for a new generation of the Matt family to remake it for the craft brewing explosion. Matt's Saranac line of brews includes seven year-round regulars and a range of seasonal and specialty beers. Matt's not afraid to market beyond its Northeastern base. Saranac made its Alabama debut at Birmingham's Magic City Brewfest and is on store shelves in Birmingham now.

Not for export anytime soon are the offerings from Ellicottville Brewing Co., a brewpub in a small ski town an hour south of Buffalo. EBC's brews are the sort one's got to travel to enjoy, and I'm thankful to get the chance to do it once a year on my family reunion trip (in the interest of full disclosure, the company is operated by a second cousin).

If you're up that way (or you're in a Birmingham store that carries the Saranac stuff), give these a try.

Straub Beer — A really light lager, much like its former Pennsylvania cousin Rolling Rock. Not very complex, but not bad, and easy to drink ice-cold on those rare hot Northeastern summer days.

Saranac Pale Ale — This one stands out from most micro-brewed pales in that it's consciously aiming for the British version of the style. The hops are milder European varieties, without the citrusy bitterness so prominent in most craft pales.

EBC Two Brothers Pale Ale — A solid American pale ale, with lots of those hops that Saranac avoided.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The selling of 'the great American lager'

Pitcher This: The selling of 'the great American lager'

07-09-2008

There's been lots of talk recently about the biggest beer deal in years: The offer by Belgium-based international brewing giant InBev to pay $46 billion for America's iconic beer-maker, Anheuser-Busch. Depending on who's talking, the offer is either a common-sense investment by one giant corporation in another, a low-ball effort by one company to pick up another on the cheap, or an affront to national dignity — a foreign corporation buying up an American household name.

It's talk of the last kind that seems to be the loudest, and the most based on emotion in place of fact.

It seems a lot of people care deeply about the legacy of the venerable St. Louis-based brewer, founded in the mid-1800s by German immigrants.

Sure enough, AB, as the company is known, produced or perfected many of the innovations that have made the modern brewing industry possible. When Eberhard Anheuser bought what became Anheuser-Busch in 1860, beer was a very much a regional, even local beverage. Brewers couldn't ship their product far because beer wouldn't keep for long trips. Anheuser's son-in-law, Adolphus Busch, helped introduce pasteurization and refrigerated railcars, both of which made it possible to ship the brewery's beer to new markets, according to an official company history.

When the company introduced its Budweiser brand in 1876, it used these new tools to make Bud the first nationally distributed beer, shipped far beyond St. Louis.

To help introduce the brand to these new markets, the company also innovated in marketing and advertising, putting the Budweiser name on posters of attractive young women — "Budweiser Girls" — holding bottles of the brew.

All of this helped AB to become the country's largest brewer, with Budweiser the best-selling brand nationwide by 1957, according to the company. It also helped to nearly end regional and local brewing, as mass-marketed national brands out-competed smaller producers.

Of course, Anheuser-Busch wasn't the only big fish in this pond. Miller and Coors enjoyed successes of their own, competing hard to become household beer names in their own right. Of course, not nearly as much hullabaloo was raised when in 2002 Miller was sold to South African Breweries, forming SABMiller, or in 2005 when Coors merged with the Canadian brewer Molson. Those companies now are cooperating in the United States as MillerCoors, to act as a stronger competitor to the giant Anheuser-Busch.

And the headlines weren't nearly as big in 2006 when AB bought the Rolling Rock brand from none other than InBev, shuttering the storied Latrobe, Pa., brewery where it had been made for generations to move production to its own plant in New Jersey. In short, AB is not a new player to this mega-brewer game. The company helped make the rules, and it should come as no surprise that they might wind up inside a bigger fish someday.

The good news is that even if the sale goes through, regional and local brewing in America is in the midst of a big comeback. The big brewers have been losing market share in recent years to smaller, upstart companies who've built their business on brewing something wholly different from Bud.

So rest easy, American beer will be alive and well, even if the company with the big bald eagle in its logo gets sold off to Belgium.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Fresh tastes better, even with beer

Wow, didn't realize I'd skipped one. Here it is, just two weeks late.

Pitcher This: Fresh tastes better, even with beer

06-25-2008

It was an unexpected phone call, but definitely the welcome kind.

"Can I pick you up some beer?"

That's similar to asking someone if they'd like a free pile of cash, isn't it?

The caller was in a store I don't normally frequent, one that tends to stock brands not found in every local convenience store. Naturally, I accepted the offer and after work stopped by to pick up the gift of hooch.

I carted my haul home, and began stocking the bottles to chill. The next day I pulled one out, and prepared to pour it into a glass. I stopped, noticing the digits inked on the label. The beer was best consumed, it said, by a date that had passed 10 months prior.

My heart sank.

People are sometimes surprised when I mention the freshness of beer. Perhaps they think a tightly sealed, chilled bottle protects its contents indefinitely, especially when the contents contain alcohol.

But yes, beer can go bad.

There's not enough alcohol in most beer to provide a preservative effect for long. Plus, there's a lot more than that in the bottle — any number of chemical compounds resulting from the mixture of water, hops, yeast and malt that can break down over time, or from wild swings in temperature or from the deteriorating effect of sunlight. The beer's taste can turn sour, flat or downright skunky when it's old or not stored properly. Most beer should be consumed within three to six months of being brewed.

In the anecdote above, I don't fault my beer benefactor, whose gesture was as warm as good beer is cold. Instead, the distributor and retailer should have kept a closer eye on the stock, making sure they were offering a fresh product.

Not all brewers make this easy, and some make it downright hard for customers to gauge beer's age. A number of brands use coded dates than can be tough to decipher unless one knows the key. Fortunately, the Internet age is making it easier for those who've cracked the codes to share that knowledge.

But a noble and growing few are printing clearly written dates of each beer's brewing, or even best-consumed-by dates right on the label.

When that information's not available, look for dust on the bottles, a tell-tale sign that beer's been around a tad too long. It also doesn't hurt to get to know whoever's responsible for the beer stock at your regular shopping stops. Besides learning how quickly they move different brands out the door, you could gain an ally or two in your search for a favorite brand or the latest new brews on the market.

And of course, every rule has its exceptions. Some beer styles actually benefit from a few years in storage. Under the right conditions, higher-alcohol and more heavily hopped beers such as Belgian strong ales, imperial stouts, and barleywines add character to their flavor over time, improving with age much like some wines. Sadly, their higher alcohol content makes Alabama one of very few states where such beers are outlawed.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

At last, good things are brewing in Bama again

Pitcher This: At last, good things are brewing in Bama again

06-11-2008

After a long, thirsty year, Alabamans can again wet their whistles with beer brewed in their home state.

Just in time for the Magic City Brewfest a week and a half ago, Birmingham's Good People Brewing Co. started filling kegs and brought some of its brand-new brown ale to the festival.

This came just shy of a year since Alabama's previous lone brewery, Huntsville's Olde Towne, burned last July. The company is rebuilding in an all-new facility in South Huntsville. Before the festival, Olde Towne founder Don Alan Hankins said if everything remains on track the new plant could be shipping out bottles by mid-July.

That would make this a good summer indeed for beer in Alabama, especially after last year's blaze and the flaming defeat for a bill in the Legislature that would have made legal beer with more alcohol, and thus more of the beer styles brewers across the country are crafting for a public that apparently is thirsty for diversity. This year's version of the bill didn't become law either, but it did pass the House before stalling, along with everything else in the Senate. Count that a moving in the right direction.

Now with Olde Towne's impending revival and the emergence of Good People, there are tangible successes to toast in Alabama.

The small sample of Good People's brown ale I tasted in Birmingham was a well-balanced treat.

I sipped it while talking with Jason Malone, who described himself as the company's brewer, as well as an electrician, drywall hanger and painter in the effort to complete its small Southside-Birmingham facility. Trying to keep costs down, the small company did much of the work itself, all while clearing the red tape required by various levels of government and keeping an eye on the quality of their product.

Like many small brewers (and a number of big ones, too), Malone and his partners got their start brewing at home, he said. Eventually, they had enough people asking for their creations they figured they could turn it into a business.

While he's proud of the beers Good People is bringing to market, Malone itches for the creativity making beer in one's kitchen allows, which can result in "funky, interesting things."

"But at the end of the day I have to remember I'm not a homebrewer anymore," he said.

Good People plans to roll out pale and amber ales along with its brown, plus an India pale ale or hefeweizen as it distributes kegs to Southside-area restaurants in these first few weeks. Bottling may come later, Malone said, by contract since there's little room for the equipment where they operate now.

As Malone, red-bearded and baseball-capped, spoke, a Good People T-shirt hung from the canopy behind him. Its logo, a beat-up old pickup, was a fitting choice for a hard-working company pulling itself up by its bootstraps.

It's also not a bad image for the state's tiny brewing industry as a whole. Despite long odds and tough breaks, and some even tougher laws, thing are finally beginning to pick up speed.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Good beer, too

As noted in the first post from the Magic City Brewfest, a great surprise was to find Alabama-brewed beer there after all. Birmingham's Good People Brewing Co. offered its beer to the public for the first time at the festival.

I got a chance Sunday to chat with Good People's Jason Malone, who said the company this week is beginning keg production, and will begin distributing the draft beer to Five Points and Southside-area restaurants such as 5 Points Grille, the J. Clyde and Mellow Mushroom.

"We want to be at the good places where people like good beer," Malone told me. What else would you expect from Good People, right? If all goes well, bottling could come within a few months via a contract brewer.

Malone said Good People will start off brewing the "mainstays," a pale ale, an amber, and an IPA or hefeweizen, and a brown ale, followed by seasonals down the road. The brown is what he's shown pouring above, at the festival. Stuart Carter, Free the Hops' president, called it one of the best examples of the style he's ever tasted. It was hard to judge after a day of drinking dozens of different beer styles in no particular order, but I can say it was good.

For our Calhoun County readers, I mentioned to Malone that we've got a Mellow Mushroom in Oxford and other restaurants committed to good beer. He said to let restaurants know you'd like to see Good People on tap, so they can ask distributors for it.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Thumbs up on MCBF '08

Just in from the 2008 Magic City Brewfest. The Star's 10-strong contingent had a great time, despite the occasional rain and one nearly hour-long storm delay. Over the next few days I'll be emptying out my notebook here on the blog. In the meantime, here's a few highlights from the festival off the top of my head:
  • There was Alabama-brewed beer there after all. Birmingham's Good People Brewing Co. is finally off the ground, and debuted their brown ale to the public at the festival. They'll begin full-scale production this week.
  • Rougue's Chocolate Stout was outstanding. That's it in the glass above. That's also it spilled on my shirt after a slight accident as I fiddled with the camera. (Don't worry, most of it come right out with water from a nearby rinse station.)
  • The food was much improved this year. Among my favorites: meatball & corn from Yarbourough Catering (I think that's right), Jambalaya & sweet cornbread from 5 Points Grille, and hummus from whoever that was set up on the right as we entered the food court. Bravo!
Hats off to the organizers. Whatever ticketing trouble they had Saturday night was solved today. They rolled with the punches on the rain and had volunteers well-prepared. There were plenty of tasting glasses (I believe they ran out last year), plus festival T-shirts and plenty of merchandise available for sale. Congrats to Free the Hops & Danner Kline on a great event. Cheers, and here's to next year.

EDIT (1:15 p.m., June 2): I've seen folks linking to this post from elsewhere on the Web, some of who are taking issue with my description of the festival as relatively well-run. Keep in mind, I'm describing my experience at the festival's Sunday session. We had a pretty darn good time.

We'd all ordered tickets ahead of time and arrived about 30 minutes before the festival began. There was no line when I walked up to the will-call window, and it took the volunteer there about 10 seconds to find my name on a list. She slapped a wristband on me, and then it was just a short wait before they cut the ribbon and the tasting began.

I know there was trouble Saturday night, and the organizers have admitted as much. While the rest of us were sleeping Saturday night, they stayed up looking for ways to make sure the same problems didn't happen again Sunday. It worked, at least from my perspective.

I know the committed volunteers who organized this event want constructive feedback so they can improve every year (even from one session to the next, as noted above). If you ran into problems on Sunday, please click below to comment. Let's talk it out.

Sloss, here we come

I, the Mrs. and a group from The Star are rolling out this afternoon for the Magic City Brewfest.

Looks like there was overwhelming support from the public last night. Enough people showed up that there were ticketing and entry problems. Free the Hops' Danner Kline posted a message at the festival Web site last night after the session was over, indicating they would handle some things different today.

We're leaving Anniston around1:30, and most of us have will-call tickets. I hope everything goes smoothly. Look for a report, photos and perhaps a video or two online when I get back.

Anyone out there attend Saturday night? How'd it go? Click below to comment.

EDIT (11:36 a.m.): Looks like today's Brewfest session may face the threat of rain, and perhaps a thunderstorm. The NWS predicts a 60-percent chance of showers, and a moderate threat of thunderstorms after noon. Already, the NWS says a storm with hail and high winds is moving through Jefferson County. There's no mention of a rain plans at the festival Web site, or from Free the Hops. Keep your fingers crossed.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Today's column

Pitcher This: Birmingham's beer bonanza

05-28-2008

With apologies to the Iron Bowl and Talladega Superspeedway's twice-a-year festivities, there's no better time to enjoy beer in Alabama than this weekend.

Saturday and Sunday will see the return of the Magic City Brewfest, which debuted in 2007 to rave reviews despite a few first-year glitches.

The two-day festival will again take place at Birmingham's Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark and will feature beers from dozens of the nation's best brewers and a slew of quality imports. It's organized by Free the Hops, a group pushing for reform of laws restricting beer in Alabama.

Free the Hops' president, Stuart Carter, says there will be as many as 250 different brews on offer, up from around 180 last year.

"That represents the majority of beers available in the state," Carter says.

Though that may sound impressive, Carter says it's actually kind of disappointing. Alabama law limits the alcohol content of beer to 6 percent by volume. That leaves out many of the marquee offerings from brewers who will be at the festival, and keeps whole ranges of beer styles from being sold here. A Free the Hops-sponsored bill to raise the limit to 13.9 percent passed the Alabama House this year, and cleared a Senate committee before it died earlier this month along with tons of other legislation in the upper chamber's end-of-session gridlock. Carter says they'll try again next year.

Other beer that won't be available at the festival: Alabama's only bottling brewery, Huntsville's Olde Towne Brewing Co. won't have its new facility running in time. A fire destroyed the old brewery last July. Founder Don Alan Hankins says if everything goes well, the new place could be bottling by the first half of July, perhaps within a year of the blaze.

One silver lining from Olde Towne's misfortune: Hankins says a new bottling line capable of filling 120 bottles per minute will replace the old 20-bottle-per-minute line that gave the company headaches over quality.

The company will ensure distribution to its Madison County customers first, followed by Jefferson County, according to Hankins. Look for Olde Towne's amber ale, hefeweizen, pale ale and pilsner on shelves and on tap elsewhere after that.

Carter calls the lack of Alabama-brewed beer at the state's only festival "a crying shame." But his group is planning for thousands of attendees anyway, along with live music and the chance to earn converts to its political cause. And of course, there will be plenty of great beer available, along with food from Birmingham-area restaurants. A few tips gleaned from last year's festival:

• Take a designated driver (or two). Even with 2-4 oz. samples, you'll need help getting home safely. The good news: DDs get free admission, plus unlimited non-alcoholic drinks.

• Go with a group. Beer is best enjoyed with friends, and this much beer calls for a lot of company.

• Dress lightly. The festival's all outdoors, much of it while the sun's shining. Shorts, sunblock and shades are all good ideas, especially on Sunday.

• Get outside your comfort zone. There's so much exotic beer on hand, you won't want to waste your time with anything you drink regularly. You'll get a list at the gate of what's available. Mark off everything you've already tried, then circle anything new to you that sounds intriguing.

The festival runs in two sessions, each ticketed separately. Saturday is 7-11 p.m., Sunday is 3-7 p.m. Discounted tickets are available in advance online. They'll be $30 for beer only at the gate, $40 for beer and unlimited food. More info is available at http://www.magiccitybrewfest.com.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A good time brewing

The second annual Magic City Brewfest is just over a week away. Organizers say this year there'll be more beer, more food, and probably more people.

The festivities will be at Birmingham's Sloss Furnaces Park, Saturday, May 31 from 7 p.m.-11 p.m., and Sunday, June 1, from 3 p.m.-7 p.m. Tickets are available online now; they'll be more expensive at the gate.

Stuart Carter, president of Free the Hops, which is organizing the festival, says the group learned a lot from last year's inaugural event. Many more people than expected showed up, and organizers are preparing for even mroe this year.

Brewers will be more spread out over the festival grounds to reduce congestion. There will be more food vendors as well, also spaced out around the festival grounds to avoid last year's long lines. FTH also plans to better educate the red-shirted volunteers who will be pouring at the brewers' booths, so they'll be able to share some info on the suds. Between the musical acts on the festival stage, brewers and FTH organizers will be speaking, giving the festival a bit more of an education and advocacy edge.

"This will be about how to appreciate beer as an enjoyable thing, rather than guzzling it as a light macro," Carter told The Star earlier this week.

Perhaps most importantly, Carter says there will be as many as 250 beers available to taste, which he said is the majority of brews available in the state. That's up form last year's total of about 180, he said.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Looking to next year

I just spoke with Stuart Carter, president of Free the Hops, the group pushing the Gourmet Beer Bill to raise the allowed alcohol-by-volume limit on beer sold in the Alabama to 13.9 percent from 6 percent. He said last night's failure by the state Senate to do much of anything has ended any chance of passing the bill this year. Carter and other members were disappointed, to say the least.

"If it had been voted down that would have been a more understandable outcome than it never having been discussed," Carter said. Like most of the other bills awaiting the Senate's attention, the beer bill died as the Senate bickered over and failed to act on the state's 2009 education budget. The beer bill won't be up for consideration if Gov. Bob Riley calls a special session of the Legislature, Carter said.

FTH members and supporters are now turning their attention to the second annual Magic City Brewfest, scheduled for May 31 and June 1 at Birmingham's Sloss Furnaces.

"The Brewfest is an opportunity to introduce more people to the delight of good beer," Carter said. He also said it's "a good way to get more people frustrated and focused in their anger" over the Senate's failure to act.

"And of course we want people to have an absolute blast at the weekend, because we want them to come back for next year’s Brewfest," he said.

Another year to wait?

The Alabama Senate adjourned last night without passing an education budget or accomplishing much of anything else, let alone getting close to touching the Gourmet Beer Bill. Free the Hops' President Stuart Carter, in a post on the group's blog that was also e-mailed to members and supporters, wrote that Alabamans were "failed by the Senate." Beyond FTH's pet issue of raising the ABV limit on beer, Carter urged members to complain to their senators about their lack of action on on much of anything this year (or last), and to remember it come election time in 2010.

In the meantime, what will FTH do about the ABV limit? Wait another year? Try their luck in a special session if Gov. Bob Riley calls one? What are your thoughts. Click below to leave a comment.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Update

It could be that we'll never know if Gov. Bob Riley would sign a bill to increase the amount of alcohol allowed in beer here this year. It could also be that we'll never know if the Senate would approve such a measure. That's because the Senate is stalled in its final day of deliberation on the state's education budget. The Associated Press is reporting that the Senate is in danger of ending the session without an ed budget, meaning any other bills scheduled to be heard today could be left for dead.

Could they come up in a special session, along with the ed budget? That remains to be seen. Whether that happens, or whether Free the Hops has to wait another year, there is at least a bright side: supporters will have more time to educate Riley on the issue, hopefully earning his signature on any effort that gets hard-won approval from the Legislature.

Today's the day

The Alabama Senate should today take up what supporters have called the Gourmet Beer Bill, which would increase the allowed alcohol limit for beer to 13.9 percent from 6 percent. Free the Hops, the citizens' group which has sought the change for three years now, decided two weeks ago to hold off on having the bill considered as tensions were running high in the Senate's rush to get things done.

That brings us to today, the last day anything can be considered by the Senate and become law. If it manages to pass today, it'll then go to the governor's desk for his signature. Previously, FTH had said they'd heard Gov. Bob Riley would sign such a bill. A story in Saturday's Montgomery Advertiser seemed to indicate otherwise, however. Posters at FTH's message forum are understandably nervous.

Will today be the day that the Legislature gives its approval for higher-quality beer in Alabama? And what will the governor do if lawmakers say yes? Anyone in the state who loves beer is sure to be watching today. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Talladega commission looks at ways to allow sale of draft beer

This from The Daily Home in Talladega. -aj

By Chris Norwood
05-13-2008

TALLADEGA COUNTY — The County Commission voted unanimously Monday night to authorize county attorney Barry Vaughn to come up with a proposed bill that would allow the sale of draft beer on and off premises in the county following a public hearing.

There was no opposition to the proposal during the hearing, and Sylacauga restaurant owner Alan Sanders presented a petition signed by between 900 and 1,000 people, as well as letters of support from two beer distributors and half a dozen other restaurant owners.

Sanders’ proposal would have allowed the sale of draft beer only by restaurants, but he said he would not oppose allowing licensed businesses to rent kegs as well. The commission asked Vaughn to research ordinances covering both.

The resolution Vaughn would craft for the commission’s approval would be a recommendation to the state Legislature only. The commission itself does not have the authority to pass ordinances, as Commissioner Jimmy Roberson pointed out.

Full story

Monday, May 5, 2008

Down to the wire

Is the promised land in sight? The folks at Free the Hops say the Gourmet Beer Bill, HB196, will finally be up for discussion in the Alabama Senate this week, likely on Tuesday. The bill would raise the allowed alcohol limit on beer sold here from 6 percent alcohol by volume to 13.9 percent.

The group's president, Stuart Carter, sent an e-mail to supporters this morning asking that they call their senators to ask for a yes vote on the bill.

This could the last real hurdle in the years-long effort to raise the ABV limit. If HB196 clears the Senate, it'll go to Gov. Bob Riley, needing his signature to become law. FTH leaders have said they've been told the governor will sign the bill if it comes to him.

Many of the world's best beers contain more than 6 percent alcohol, including much of the stuff being produced by America's many craft brewers, who are seeing an explosion of consumer interest in their beers. Alabama is one of three states where the alcohol limit is so low. Advocates for change say the law is keeping quality beer out of Alabama.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Today's column

Pitcher This: 121 bottles of beer on the wall

04-30-2008

There's an old saying attributed to an ancient philosopher comparing loudmouths and containers.

"As empty vessels make the loudest sound, so they that have the least wit are the greatest blabbers," it goes.

One might add that when it comes to beer bottles, he who empties more vessels tends to display less wit and blab more.

Readers can judge for themselves the wit displayed in this space, but I'll admit to emptying more than my share of vessels. Enough, in fact, that I'm starting to wonder what to do with them.

As a beer fan and a beer writer, I've kept an empty bottle of each brew I've tried for at least the last year and a half —121 at last count. Thanks to my wife's tolerance, there's a room at my house — a simple covered patio, really — devoted to beer, as well as darts, televised sports, Martin Scorsese films and rock concert posters. The bottles serve as a professional record and as the bar's primary decoration.

Trouble is, I've filled every inch of the room's shelving. Bottle No. 122 is without a home on the wall, and it'll soon be joined by others. I could put up more shelves, but I see the problem brewing again before long. What happens when I've got four walls covered floor-to-ceiling in brown and green glass? I don't see my wife's indulgence extending to the guest bedroom.

This raises another question, for me and for other local beer lovers: what to do with the five other bottles in each six pack? Living in Jacksonville, I'm fortunate to have curbside recycling service, but they don't pick up glass. Nor is it accepted at the drop-off bins around the county. I could truck it to a recycling center, but I'm no more eager to temporarily store months' worth of bottles than I am to fill my walls with more 12-ounce trophies. And I feel a twinge of tree-hugger guilt every time I pitch one in the trash.

Some Colorado craft brewers may have a solution for me. Oskar Blues Brewery of Lyons, Colo., says in 2002 it became the first U.S. craft brewery to can its beer rather than bottle it. The aluminum is cheaper, lighter and easier to transport and recycle. New Belgium Brewing announced recently it will follow suit with cans of its Fat Tire Amber Ale. Neither brewer distributes here, but if their practice becomes a trend I could crush my empties and leave them on the curb once a week.

Then all I'll have to worry about it whether to put up more shelves for my can collection.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Townsend: Sweetwater tears the roof off the sucker

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Bob Townsend, in today's column, profiles hometown-brewer-done-good Sweetwater. In March the company installed eight new 400 barrel fermentation tanks, doubling capacity at the downtown facility.

Sweetwater's beers are available in eastern Alabama, but only on tap at a few places I've seen (Cooter Brown's Rib Shack and the Vault in Jacksonville, plus the Mellow Mushroom in Oxford). Here's hoping the new capacity will allow them to distribute bottles to our neck of the woods. With gas prices going up like they are, I can't afford too many more trips to Birmingham to pick up 12-packs of 420 Pale Ale.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A new favorite

One of the joys of starting a beer column has been that people in the newsroom now randomly bring me new beers to try. This works well as long as I can wait until I get home to sample them. A fellow hop-head at the office (Staff Writer Matt Kasper, whose dad Rob Kasper, coincidentally, writes the Kasper On Tap blog for the Baltimore Sun), recently brought me a can (yes, can) of Dale's Pale Ale, the flagship product of Oskar Blues Cajun Grill & Brewery in Lyons, Col.

I'm a sucker for a well-hopped pale or IPA, and I've since added this beer to my list of favs. The Dale's sings with Centennial hops, and if like me you crave the flavor of the bitter flower this should satisfy your jones ... at least for awhile. I wish this were legal in Albama (it's 6.5 percent ABV). I don't advocate breaking state law, but I know that it is available just across the border at Arbor Place Beverage Depot in Douglasville, Ga.

Oskar Blues founder and Dale's Pale Ale namesake Dale Katechis, I'm told, is an Alabama native, and would love to distribute his products here. I hope state law soon will allow him to do it.

The can, by the way, is said to be a first-of-its-kind innovation for a craft brewer. Good-beer drinkers are used to getting their stuff from bottles. But the cheaper & lighter aluminum cans keep beer-spoiling light and air out better than glass. Plus, they're welcome in many places, such as beaches and parks, that bottles aren't. Fellow Colorado brewer New Belgium (of Fat Tire fame) recently announced it's following Oskar's lead. As long as you drink the beer from a glass, you don't really taste the aluminum anyway.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Today's column

Pitcher This: Lawnmower beer — Brews to cool you

04-16-2008

The dust is still settling. The sun will blaze for a few hours more.

You've just pushed your 80-pound Craftsman over every square inch of your half-acre lawn and your arms are pink from the exposure. Your head aches from the heat and two-cycle exhaust.

Your body somehow still is squeezing out sweat, which in turn runs right out of your already-soaked T-shirt.

The only part of your body not dripping is your cracked, dust-caked throat. You must have something to cool and moisten your pounding head. Just one elixir will do.

You need a beer.

(To be clear, what you really need is a big glass of ice water. But let's assume since you're reading this you're more interested in beer. Besides, a regular column about water would get old fast.)

For beer geeks, the term "lawnmower beer" usually is pejorative. It's applied to the light, mass-produced lagers that have long dominated the American market. Craft beer lovers tend to look down their noses at these brands because they lack the more potent malt and hops flavors smaller brewers are known for.

The mass-produced lagers picked up the landscaping-related nickname because they're supposedly best suited for the situation described above: a quick, cool thirst-quenching on a hot day. After all, if water's what you really need, why not have a beer that's more like water?

But with grass now growing fast again, it's worth asking: Is there such a thing as a good lawnmower beer?

Of course, the answer is yes. There's any number of finely crafted brews that can leave beer lovers feeling relaxed and refreshed, while not pummeling their yardwork-stressed senses with dark-roast malts or super-bitter hops.

Wheat-based ales are designed for the same thirst-quenching purpose as big-name lagers, and small and big brewers alike are cashing in on a surge of interest in wheat styles. Many take advantage of wheat's delicate body to add flavors like blueberry or raspberry.

American golden or blonde ales are also light on the palate, and share with their lager cousins a pale-straw color, crisp mouth-feel and frothy effervescence.

And of course, there are better examples of the style to which so many American lagers only aspire. Pilsner-style lagers are supposed to be lighter-bodied, but the best ones have a refreshing hop bite that stings the tongue.

Here's some to try the next time you're thirsty after a hard day's mow (assuming there's no water handy):

Leinenkugel's Sunset Wheat: This light wheat ale smells like blueberries but citrus dominates the flavor.

Atlanta Brewing Co. Red Brick Blonde: A crisp quaff that won a gold medal in its category at the Great American Beer Festival last October.

Pilsner Urquell: Billed as "the original" Pilsner lager, it's brewed in the town the style's named for, Pilsen in the Czech Republic. More malt than American versions, with a spicy hop finish.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Sweetwater's green party

Looking for something cool and beer-related to do this weekend? Atlanta's Sweetwater Brewing Co. is havin' a big ol' Earth Day throwdown. The two-day Sweetwater 420 Fest takes place Saturday & Sunday at Atlanta's Candler Park.

There's live music both days, a 5K run on Saturday, lots of good Sweetwater-brewed beer, and a new "Planet 420" environmental expo with all sorts of info on how to live the good life without such a big impact on the planet. (This isn't on the expo schedule, but consider: the closer a brewery is to you, the smaller the carbon output it takes to get its beer in your belly).

Looks like a darn good time. I wonder if there'll be 420 Pale Ale instead of water at the refreshment stations along the 5K route?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Brewer recalls Sam Adams over broken glass

Boston Beer Co. is recalling Samuel Adams beer sold in bottles shipped from one of its glass suppliers.

The bottles may contain small fragments of glass that could injure drinkers if ingested, the company said. They've set up a Web site with information about the recall here. Bottles embossed with the code "N35 OI" at their base should not be drunk, according to the site.

According to news reports, including this one from the Boston Herald, the defective bottles come from an Owens-Illinois plant in Auburn, N.Y. Bottles from four other plants are not affected, the company says. OI has a release about the matter up here. it takes issues with Boston Beer Co. calling the bottles "defective," saying they appear to have been made according to OI's standards.

Boston Beer Co. is offering refunds, according to the Herald story. The recall Web site has a page where consumers can enter the code at the bottom of their bottles.

Has anyone out there found they have the affected bottles? What are you doing with them? Has the company offered to mail you a refund?

Monday, April 7, 2008

Happy "Beer is Back' Day & Craft Beer Top 50

Today's April 7th, marking 75 years since the first legal beer in 13 years as an amendment to the Volstead Act took effect in 1933, effectively ending the total ban on alcoholic beverages in the United States. Liquor would flow later that year after the 18th Amendment was repealed. But for eight months, beer slaked the nation's thirst.

Tonight, I'll raise a glass of whatever's in my fridge to the tremendous diversity brewers are now producing. Cheers!

How are you celebrating beer today?

The Brewer's Association, meanwhile, released is list of the nation's top 50 craft brewers, as measured by beer sales. As usual, Boston Beer Co. tops the last, and also ranks #5 among brewers of any size. Southerners can take pride in the two Dixie-based brewers on the list (Sorry, Dogfish Head, Deleware didn't secede; apologies, Spoetzl, Texas doesn't count as Southern for me). Louisiana's Abita Brewing of Abita Springs is #17, While Atlanta's Sweetwater Brewing comes in at #30.

Friday, April 4, 2008

NYT: Politics from the glass-lined tanks of Old Latrobe

Long-time Pitcher This readers may recall my erstwhile fondness for Rolling Rock, and my concern for the fortunes of Latrobe, Pa., where it was once produced. I wrote a column last year relating to Anheuser-Busch's purchase of the brand, and the decision to move production to New Jersey. City Brewing later bought the shuttered Latrobe plant and began using it to brew Samuel Adams under contract (along with other brands?).

In advance of Pennsylvania's looming presidential primary, the New York Times today carried a story exploring the thoughts of Latrobe's citizenry on the election, and particularly on Barack Obama. It is hard, though, to talk about Latrobe without mentioning beer. From the story:

Latrobe is probably best known as the birthplace of Rolling Rock beer. The label was sold to Anheuser-Busch, and brewing was moved in 2006 to Newark.

A new company came in that employs fewer people, mostly at lower wages.

“I’m making $5 an hour less than I did before,” said Rick Musick, who parked his truck outside the brewery just before the 5 p.m. shift.

Sounds like things in Latrobe haven't improved all that much. My only suggestion to help those folks out: Drink more Sam Adams.

Sea change in progess?

The Wall Street Journal has this bit today (you've got to be a subscriber to read the whole thing, but the main news is in the free nugget): Anheuser-Busch will begin allowing some of its distributors to carry competing brands.

How big a deal is this? Aren't AB's exclusive distribution deals one of the major tools it's used to build it's mammoth market share? Is this a sign that we should expect to see even more craft beer on store shelves around the country?

I can't lay hands on a copy of the whole WSJ to read the whole thing. Any body out there seen it?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Will homebrew bill pass committe, Senate?

Markeshia Ricks filed a report on Wednesday's Senate committee hearing on home brewing. She seems to have read more reluctance into the senators' reactions than I've seen mentioned elsewhere. The story pasted below is carried in today's edition of The Anniston Star. Normally it would be available on our Web site for subscribers only, but we're offering it for free to Pitcher This readers. Enjoy!

Bill to make home-brewing legal may meet resistance

04-03-2008

MONTGOMERY — Brewing beer and wine in your basement for your own pleasure is illegal in Alabama.

If law enforcement officers bust you doing it, you could spend up to a year in jail and be hit with as much as $2,000 in fines.

But it's a popular pastime in Alabama, and do-it-yourself brewers say it's time to make it legal.

Click here to read the rest of the piece for free at our site.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Homebrew hearing today

The Alabama Senate's Tourism & Marketing Committee today is set for a public hearing on a bill that would legalize home brewing of beer, cider and wine. The hearing is set for 1 p.m. in room 727 of the State House.

Text of the bill, Senate Bill 355, is here. The Star's capitol correspondent, Markeshia Ricks, plans to be there. I'll let you know what she hears.

EDIT (3:40 p.m.): Haven't heard from Markeshia yet, but folks posting on the Free the Hops message board seem to think it went well. John Little of the Auburn Brew Club has posted an mp3 recording from the hearing here (I haven't listened yet - hard to do here in the office).

Today's column

Pitcher This: Imagine a world without beer

04-02-2008

Before you read the following lines, be sure that you've got the lights on. And perhaps make sure you're not alone. It could get frightening.

Ready? O.K.

Imagine a world without beer.

Scary, I know. Let alone knot being able to drink the stuff, how could one make beer-battered onion rings or beer-can chicken? How would the Super Bowl turn a profit?

Now that you've (hopefully) stopped shivering, brace yourself again: that world is real — or at least was.

Thankfully, Monday will mark the 75th anniversary of that world's end. On April 7, 1933, breweries produced the nation's first legal beer — indeed, the first legal alcohol it had tasted in more than 13 years. It was on that day that an amendment to the Volstead Act, which had enabled Prohibition under the Constitution's 18th Amendment, took effect. It made legal the production of beer up to 3.2 percent alcohol by weight.

When national Prohibition took effect in 1920, the production of beer, wine, liquor and all other alcohol was outlawed everywhere in the country. The idea was to promote a more orderly society, and alcohol's absence was expected to reduce crime and poverty.

Funny how things turn out sometimes, isn't it?

While the 1920s were by most accounts a boom-time, poverty was far from eliminated, and the economy went bust in 1929. It was a boom-time for organized crime, too, as Al Capone and the like got into the business of distributing bootleg liquor.

Fortunately, the country came to its senses, and enough states ratified an amendment to repeal the ban on alcohol in December 1933.

But long before that, on April 7, Americans toasted alcohol's return with beer. Many breweries stayed in business through prohibition by turning to the production of soft drinks, ice cream and other items. But many didn't survive the outright ban on their former business.

It's a shame that something known as the "temperance movement" wound up dragging the nation into a less-than temperate debate about and ban on alcoholic beverage. The term originally referred to moderating intake of intoxicating beverages.

There's no question that drinking too much leads to bad things. But pushing the country into total intolerance of alcohol didn't do much good either. It did deny people personal liberty, the freedom to exercise their taste and cultural connections to beverages going back thousands of years.

If any good did come of Prohibition, it at least served as a first-hand lesson in the law of unintended consequences. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing — even when the good thing is not drinking.

So as you raise a glass to 75 years of beer's rebirth in America, the best way to do it is in recognition of the dangers of excess — both in consumption and in political certitude. The best way to toast Prohibition's end is in moderation.

Cheers.