Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Today's column

Pitcher This: 121 bottles of beer on the wall


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


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


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


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.


Tuesday, April 1, 2008

FTH sets Brewfest date, looks for volunteers

The folks at Free the Hops are looking for volunteers to staff their second annual Magic City Brewfest, the big whopping beer extravaganza at Birmingham's Sloss Furnaces (info on last year's Brewfest is here). There's a sign-up form available online, here.

This year's festival is set for two sessions, one Saturday, May 31 from 7 p.m.-11 p.m., the other Sunday, June 1 from 3 p.m.-7 p.m. FTH prez Stuart Carter says volunteers who work one session get to attend the other for free. Good deal, if you ask me.

I went to the inaugural festival last year, with a cadre of backup tasters drawn from The Star's staff. A good time - and a lotta good beer - was had by all. This is THE beer event in Alabama. If you like the good stuff, or just want to try a lot of new things, don't miss it.