Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Aged like fine ... beer

In his Washington Post column today, Greg Kitsock explores the practice of aging beers to enhance their flavor.

"Which styles will stand the test of time? High-test brews such as barley wines, imperial stouts, wee heavies and Belgian strong ales have an advantage over beers of moderate strength."

Kitsock also mentions lambics as prime for leaving be a while.

One key in keeping beer around long enough to enjoy it more, he writes, is keeping it at an even temperature of 55-65 degrees, in a nice, dark place. I'd like to try aging beer, but I'm not sure I've got a proper spot for it. Most of what I buy I keep in a smallish refrigerator, around 35-40 degrees, situated under the bar in a "man room" built onto the back of my house. Unfortunately, the room is not climate controlled, and anything stored outside the fridge would alternate between freezing and frying as the years drag on.

Do you keep a stash around, waiting for the perfect time to crack the cap? Where? In the bottom of a dark closet next to your tax receipts, or in a special, climate-controlled room with a double airlock? Click below to comment. I could use the advice.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Now from the "Why didn't I think of that" department ...

Here's a brilliant concept, but probably a bad idea.

You're likely familiar with Camelbaks, the backpack-style water bottles that have been around for several years. Well, some enterprising folks have adapted the design and marketing a bit. Introducing the Beerbelly.

The company's Web site says the product is designed for worn under one's clothing to resemble an ample gut. In theory, this would allow the wearer to carry up to 80 ounces of a favorite beverage into any situation. The site suggests it's appropriate for the movies, sporting events and ... airplanes? I'd suspect at least that last one would break a law or two.

The company also markets a product for women who aren't keen on sporting an expanded midsection, and who'd perhaps prefer a beverage other than beer: the Winerack is worn just as you might imagine.

Anybody out there got one of these things? Where have you used it?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Compromise broken, but by who?

In a post yesterday evening, I reported that Pat Lynch, Birmingham Budweiser vice president, said he blocked a bill in the Legislature last year that would have raised the allowed alcohol limit for beer sold in Jefferson County because the bill's supporters broke a compromise by drafting a bill that also would have allowed for beer sales in containers larger than 16 ounces. The text of the bill in question, however, contains no such language. It's available online at the Legislature's Web site, here.

Stuart Carter is president of Free the Hops, the main group advocating for changes to the laws restricting beer sales in Alabama. He reacted strongly to Lynch's claim, saying supporters had put off the goal of larger container sizes to address the 6-percent ABV limit. The local bill was introduced last year when it became clear that a bill to raise the limit statewide would not pass. Carter says Lynch agreed to help pass the local bill, with the stipulation that higher-alcohol beer must be sold unrefrigerated, but that Lynch later withdrew his support.

Carter and Free the Hops called Tuesday for a boycott of products distributed in Jefferson County by Lynch's company, Birmingham Budweiser, in response to what they said was Lynch's continued opposition to their efforts. A list of brands distributed by the company is available at a discussion of the boycott at FTH's Web site, here.

Lynch earlier criticized the call for a boycott, saying FTH should have called to discuss the matter first.

"We didn't feel it was necessary to notify him we were about to launch a boycott in the same way he didn't feel it was necessary to notify us when he was about to kill our Jefferson County bill last year, " Carter wrote in an e-mail to The Star.

EDIT (3:48 p.m.): A complete response by Carter to Lynch's comments is available online at the FTH site, here.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

B'ham Bud's response: How about a phone call?

An executive for a Birmingham beer distributor says he's not happy with calls by a beer enthusiasts' group to boycott his company's products.

A post earlier today carried the news that Free the Hops is calling for a boycott of Birmingham Budweiser, Anheuser-Busch's Jefferson County distributor. FTH president Stuart Carter said the company's vice president, Pat Lynch, was opposing a bill in the Legislature that would raise the allowed alcohol-by-volume in beer sold in Jefferson County.

Pat Lynch, speaking with The Star today, said he is opposed to such a local bill, and that he helped block a similar local bill last year, but that he has taken no steps to pre-empt anything that might be introduced in the Legislature's upcoming session.

"They assume that that’s our position," Lynch said. "It would be good before somebody boycotts us for somebody to call and ask our position."

Lynch said he thinks local bills to raise the 6-percent alcohol-by-volume cap on beer sold in Alabama are a bad idea because they would create a patchwork of regulations for the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to enforce. He said he does support a bill to raise the cap statewide.

A 2007 bill backed by Free the Hops to raise the cap statewide went nowhere after a measure to bring it up for consideration in the Senate failed. FTH backed a number of local bills to raise the cap in some communities, but those failed as well. Lynch said he took action to block the Jefferson County bill because it would have raised the cap and allowed for containers larger than 16 ounces. He said that violated a compromise distributors had worked out with FTH to only lift the 6-percent cap.

FTH says the 6-percent cap and 16-ounce container limit restrict consumer choice, and prevent some of the world's finest craft beers from being sold here. Alabama is one of three states to limit beer's alcohol by volume to 6 percent. The others are Mississippi and West Virginia. Grassroots movements similar to FTH have seen ABV limits in South Carolina and Georgia lifted in recent years.

Lynch said he continues to support a statewide bill raising the ABV limit. He said he might still be willing to discuss that and perhaps a local bill with FTH, but that the call for a boycott wouldn't help.

"A boycott's not going to endear me into negotiations," he said.

The proposed boycott calls on consumers and retailers to avoid buying Anheuser-Busch products distributed by Birmingham Budweiser in Jefferson County.

FTH to B'ham Bud: This boycott's for you

Free the Hops, the grassroots organization trying to change Alabama's restrictive beer laws, is calling for a boycott of Anheuser-Busch products from Birmingham Budweiser, an AB distributor. Stuart Carter, FTH's president, says B'ham Bud is opposing its effort to pass a local bill in the upcoming legislative session that would lift some restrictions on beer in Jefferson County.

FTH announced the boycott in this press release. A list of B'ham Bud-distributed beers is included in this thread at FTH's discussion forum.

It's worth noting that the boycott specifically targets AB brands in Jefferson County, where B'ham Bud distributes. It's not the brewer they're asking folks to boycott, but the local distributor.

My first thought was that FTH's gourmet beer fans might not drink many AB products to begin with. I asked Carter this via e-mail, and he replied the boycott's aim was not so much to hurt sales, but to publicize the distributor's opposition to FTH's efforts.

I've put in a call to Birmingham Budweiser, specifically to Pat Lynch, the company vice president that Carter names in the press release as opposing the Jefferson County bill. Left a voicemail, but no response yet. I've not seen anyone from the company quoted in any other stories about boycott out there in the Web.

Now, a bit of disclosure. I joined Free the Hops back in June at the Magic City Beer Festival. Obviously, as a columnist who explores the diversity of beer, I'm an advocate for more beer diversity in Alabama. I joined to support that cause, thinking that appearances of conflict of interest probably wouldn't arise. It looks like I was wrong in that assumption. I plan to let my FTH membership expire, but you can still expect me to advocate for more beer diversity in Alabama through my column and the blog. But I want readers and the people & companies I cover to believe they're being treated fairly, even if they disagree with me.

What are your thoughts on the boycott? Will you participate?

Today's column

Also available at our Web site,

Pitcher This: Laissez les bonnes bières roulez


If you're of the sort who's usually looking for any excuse to throw a party, it has probably not escaped you that Carnival is upon us, and Lent is looming.

And given that many celebrations in observance of the above involve alcohol, it's a safe bet that readers of this column planning to partake are looking for the proper brew.

Consider what follows a few beads from the beer-suggestion float.

• Is there a better way to celebrate Carnival and the approach of Mardi Gras than outside, on the street with other revelers? Who knows? Better yet, why bother trying anything else?

If you're headed for the coast, why not skip New Orleans and head for North America's original Carnival celebration, in Mobile. That city also was home to Alabama's original brewpub, The Port City Brewery opened not long after the state made brewing in restaurants legal in 1992. Sadly, Port City closed in 2001, but was followed in the same location in 2004 by the Cannon Brewpub, which lasted until 2006.

The good news is that Hurricane Brewing Co. has picked up the mantle, and is celebrating its first anniversary in the same location as its forbearers on Dauphin Street downtown. The brewery is in a massive, three-story historic structure, with a pub-style lounge on the first floor and sit-down dining upstairs.

Apart from the building, one other thing has remained the same through all three iterations: head brewer Todd Hicks.

Hicks says Hurricane's brews tend toward British-inspired ales. If you're there for Carnival it would only make sense to sample the seasonal Flying Debris Mardis Gras, described as an extra special bitter.

The menu is full of pub-style fare, from fish and chips (Southern-fried, of course,) to sausage plates to the regionally appropriate seafood and po' boys. For desert, perhaps step outside and catch a flying Moon Pie.

If you can't head south for a proper celebration, there is some Gulf Coast representation on local store shelves:

• The Abita Brewing Co. in Abita Springs, La., is just a stone's throw from the Mardi Gras ground zero that is New Orleans. They're one of the oldest craft breweries in the country, and claim to be the oldest in the Southeast, founded in 1986.

You'll find at least three Abita brews in local stores, including the company's original Amber, an Oktoberfest-style lager. It's fairly light-bodied, somewhat malty, and without much of the hops presence one might expect from a microbrewer. Abita's Purple Haze, a raspberry-flavored wheat beer, and Turbodog. Turbodog is a dark brown ale, nearly a porter, with lots of chocolaty, coffee-ish malt and just enough hops to offset that sweetness.

• Lazy Magnolia Brewing is in Kiln, off the Mississippi coast where there's just as much French Catholic history as in New Orleans and Mobile. The brewery's Southern Pecan Brown Ale is a sweet, malty treat. Available on tap locally, and now in bottles elsewhere in the state.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

NYT: Superbrands for Super Bowl

Say what you will about their brews, but Anheuser-Busch has got to be the king of beer advertising, at least.

With the advertsing frenzy of the Super Bowl just around the corner, the New York Times says in a story today that AB will be saving all its ad love for its two flagship brands, Budweiser and Bud Light.

That seems like an odd decision. We've seen that craft brewing is the only segment of the beer industry with any significant growth over the last few years. And like other mega-brewers, AB has attempted to cash in on that trend with more than a few craft-like offerings. Just on shelves here recently I've seen their Redbridge sorghum lager, Stone Mill and Wild Hop organic beers, and a line of seasonal offerings from their Michelob label, including a marzen and a porter.

Of course, AB didn't get so big and rich by following my advice. And it could be that craft beer drinkers aren't interested in trying anything that comes from mega brewers. Or, perhaps the guys in St. Louis feel Bud & Bud Light need the help.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Townsend: roll out the barrels

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Bob Townsend explores the tasty world of beer aged in used whiskey barrels in his column this week. I've never had the pleasure, but Townsend says these specialized brews pick up vanilla, woody and - of course -whiskey flavors from the used barrels.

He also notes that Athens, Ga.,-based Terrapin Beer Co. is now up and running at its new brewery in its hometown, as of Dec. 20. Most of Terrapin's beer up to now has been contract brewed in Maryland. I'm looking forward to my first true Georgia-brewed Terrapin Rye.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

New arrivals ... sort of

A press released landed here at The Star yesterday announcing the arrival in Alabama of two new beers from Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing, a Wisconsin-based craft brewer owned by Miller. The brewery's Honey Weiss and Berry Weiss have actually been on shelves here for a few months already. They followed the Sunset Wheat, which was introduced a year or so ago.

I've not tried the honey or berry brews yet, but I have had the Sunset Wheat. It's not bad. Very light-bodied, with the bit of citrus that normally comes with coriander-flavored wheat beers. I've been meaning to give the two new varieties a try. Any of you out there reading had them? Click below to comment (where it now says "0 comments") and share your thoughts with the rest of us.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A botched introduction to beer

I've just started in on a volume of The Complete Novels of Flann O'Brian, one of the pen names for the Irish writer Brian O'Nolan, a contemporary of James Joyce. (Fellow fans of the TV series Lost likely are familiar with his novel The Third Policeman). The first book in the collection is At Swim-Two-Birds, which the introductions says pokes a bit of fun at the Ireland of O'Brian's time and at traditional Irish characters. So it makes sense that the book quickly broaches the subject of beer.

The narrator, Orlick Trellis, tells readers all about his first sips of alcohol. He prefaces the story with a recounting of all the bad things about drink he heard in his childhood, including its impairment of the mind. Then, while he's in college, a friend proposes stopping at a pub for a pint of porter.

"The mind may be impaired by alcohol, I mused, but withal it may be pleasantly impaired. Personal experience appeared to me to be the only satisfactory means to the resolution of my doubts."

From there, Trellis recounts developing a taste for "brown stout in a bottle" in place of black porter. Then he mock-delicately relates "leaving" an evening's drinking on the pub floor and stumbling home, where he laid in bed hung over for three days, his soiled clothing under the sheets with him.

Personal experience indeed.

I'll share more of young Orlick's experience with beer as I read on. I'll also share other worthy references to beer as I encounter them in books, film and television. Feel free to comment, and to share the beer references you come across.

EDIT: The next installment on cultural references should come soon. Netflix tells me The Simpsons movie should be in my mailbox when I get home. Mmm ... beer.

Monday, January 14, 2008

An ale by any other name ...

It was jarring to see the The Guardian (or The Observer, as it's known on Sundays) make the distinction between "lager" and "beer" in this story, the latter term apparently being reserved exclusively for ales. "Beer" and "ale" are used interchangeable in the story. An example:

"Although total lager sales in supermarkets outnumber those of beer by around five to one, the big retailers are now waking up to how consumer tastes are rapidly changing."

The piece is about beer- er, about ale sales gaining ground on the popularity of lagers. A bit of nationalistic pride creeps in, as the writer declares that "British beer is most definitely back." Lagers, of course are a continental invention, hailing from Germany and eastern Europe. Ales, or "bitters" as they're also known, have long been a British (and, to be fair, a Belgian) specialty. As noted in the excerpt above, lagers still outsell ales, but ale sales grew 6.6 percent in 2007, compared to 0.2-percent decline in lager sales.

The report seem to describe a trend among consumers and brewers similar to what we've seen here in the U.S. with the craft beer movement. More power to 'em.

With the terminology being a bit different, I wonder if Budweiser markets itself in Britain as "the King of Beers?" That would seem to make the claim even more suspect.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

One good beer deserves another (or three)

A fellow beer-loving colleague came into work yesterday with a nice surprise. When I got my first six-pack of Lazy Magnolia's Southern Pecan Brown Ale last weekend, I picked up some for him too. He's driven as far as Starkville, Miss., looking for their Party Pigs before, so the least I could do was get him some while I was in Birmingham.

He returned the favor with a self-built sampler of beers from New Belgium Brewery. I'd had their famous Fat Tire Amber Ale, of which my colleague is an evangelist. But I'd never seen any of their others. He picked some up on a recent road trip and was kind enough to share. Included was two bottles each of their Abbey, Trippel and 2-Below Winter Ale. I had the Abbey with dinner of baked salmon and Camembert last night, and it was nice. New Belgium says you'll taste fig, caramel and clove. I couldn't help but think of apples (I get that from a lot of ambers, too). I'm looking forward to the others.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The wait is over

We told you here on the blog that Mississippi's Lazy Magnolia Brewing was putting its Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale into bottles for the first time in December. Well, a shipment made its way to Birmingham the week of Christmas. I ventured out to the Whole Foods grocery there on Saturday, and finally picked up my first six pack.

The packaging is nice, with a simple, classy label and two Southern "characters" featured on the carrier - the guitar-strumming dude you see pictured here, and a buxom blonde caught mid-laugh on the other side.

As for the beer, it's a bit sweeter than I recall from the taps and Party Pigs I've sampled before. Still, it's full-bodied, nicely nutty and very tasty. I look forward to finding it on shelves closer than an hour away, and to tasting more of Lazy Mag's brews from bottles.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Pitcher This Price Check

This post is the permanent home of what I'm calling the Pitcher This Price Check. Most know by now that beer prices are on the rise, thanks to shortages and market changes for hops and malted barely, two of beer's essential ingredients. Brewers, of course, will have to pass on their higher cost to distributors and to you, the drinker. But just how much will you wind up paying?

Brewers have said new prices should be on the shelf by the first of February. We want to document the price shift as it happens, and you can help. Pick your favorite beer (or beers), and if you don't already know the usual price by memory, stop by the store soon and write it down, then revisit over the next few weeks to watch for a change. Share your results with other Pitcher This readers by clicking below to comment on the blog, or just e-mail me what you find at I'll post updates whenever I get a few.

Include the brand, the store, the original price and the date you checked it, then the new price and the date you saw it. Format your stuff something like this:

Bubba's Pale Ale 6-pack
Jim Bob's Gas & Grocery in Anniston
$6.71 on Jan. 12
$8.25 on Feb. 2

NYT: To the extreme

The New York Times' Eric Asimov leads another tasting panel in a big feature today on "extreme beers." He defines that as:

"... an all-American genre in which brewers are engaged in a constant game of 'Can you top this?' Whether using an inordinate amount of traditional ingredients like malt or hops, or adding flavorings undreamed of by Old World brewers, American brewers have created a signature style that beer enthusiasts seem both to love and hate."

His panelists started off skeptical of the style, but found some stuff to like in the beers, all of which essentially were super-IPAs. All of them, by the way, are prohibited in Alabama thanks to the 6-percent alcohol-by-volume cap. The only one I've had is Dogfish Head's 90 Minute Imperial IPA. I agree with panelist Florence Fabricant who called it "a very nice beer" in a nifty audio & photo feature that's paired with the story (btw, it wouldn't work in Firefox for me, try IE). There's also a recipe for wok-seared spicy calamari salad that Fabricant says pairs nicely with these big beers.

Today's column

Pitcher This: Price of beer becomes more dear


Gas is nearing $3 per gallon. Milk's past four bucks now. Health insurance and college tuition keep costing more.

And now it's even getting more expensive to drown your sorrows.

Beer lovers should start bracing for a jump in prices, as a squeeze on beer's two main ingredients — hops and malted barley — works its way from farmers to brewers to distributors to your glass.

A complicated mix of factors — from bad weather in Europe, Australia and the American Northwest to the push for biofuels and the basic economics of farming — is making both hops and barley harder to find. That makes them more expensive for brewers to buy, and consequently pricier for the consumer to pour.

Julia Herz, craft beer marketing director for the Brewers Association, says she has seen brewers paying twice as much for malted barley as in previous years. The price for hops has grown 300 to 400 percent, she says.

That's especially difficult for the craft brewers Herz's group represents. For starters, they are far smaller operations than their mega-brewing cousins such as Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, and don't have the same leverage with suppliers. And the more flavorful beers they produce rely on exactly the ingredients that are getting more expensive.

"The American craft brewer … is likely the hardest hit," Herz said. "To get more flavor you put in more malt and more hops."

Different brewers are dealing with the shortages and price spikes in different ways.

Atlanta-based microbrewer Sweetwater is paying around $9 per pound for the hops it uses in its line of beer, according to Steve Farace, who carries the unlikely title "minister of propaganda." That's up from $3.75 per pound. That, plus twice as much cost for barley, has meant about $500,000 per year in increased production costs.

Sweetwater has grown large enough to sign a two-year contract with its hops supplier, locking in the current price, though it can save money if supply improves. That means the company hasn't had to fool with its recipes. As for the cost, Farace said Sweetwater "will take some of it on the chin," but that buyers will soon see a price increase of around $1 per six pack. That's on top of the roughly $8 the brewery's fans are already paying.

At Hurricane Brewing Co., Mobile's only brewpub, customers will now pay $4 for a pint, up by 50 cents. It buys malt and hops in batches too small for a long-term supply contract to make sense. Head brewer Todd Hicks says the restaurant and brewery will alter its beer lineup and tinker with the recipes to deal with higher costs. Its super-hoppy India pale ale has been replaced with a standard pale ale to stretch the hops the company can afford to buy.

"That way we can keep the price in check. The beer's a little bit lighter, but still full flavored," Hicks said. "We can't make beer if we use up all our ingredients."

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

What's your beer worth to you?

Tomorrow's column (I'm back on the beer beat after taking most of December off to do my real job ... and take a short vacation) looks at the impending jump in prices for beer, especially craft beer. Brewers are paying triple or more what they used to for hops, double for malt. To stay afloat, they'll have to put some of that on the price tag. I haven't seen much difference yet, but folks I talked to said we should see costlier beer on the shelves by the end of the month or in early February.

Wanna help document the price shift as it happens? Pick your favorite beer, and if you don't already know the usual price by memory, stop by the store soon and write it down, then revisit over the next few weeks to watch for a change. Share your results with other Pitcher This readers by clicking below to comment on the blog, or just e-mail me what you find at I'll post roundups whenever I get a few.

Include the brand, the store, the original price and the date you checked it, then the new price and the date you saw it. Format your stuff something like this:

Bubba's Pale Ale 6-pack, Jim Bob's Gas & Grocery in Anniston, $6.71 on Jan. 12, $8.25 on Feb. 2.

This should be interesting.