Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Beer travels well

Pitcher This: Beer travels well


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.