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


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


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.