Thursday, August 26, 2010

Bourbon Trail

The lack of posting the past few days is due to the fact that we have been travelling, camping, and without computer access.  We are currently in Indiana visiting my inlaws, but the past few days have been visiting the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.  When we return next week I plan to do in depth reviews of each but for now I thought I'd give a brief overview of our trip.  We visited 8 distilleries in essentially 3 days, 7 in Kentucky and 1 in Mt. Vernon, VA (George Washington's).  The thing that jumped out the whole time is that every distillery has their hook, or marketing slant.  Maker's Mark was like Disneyworld, with a recreation of the house where the Samuels family developed the brand.  Conversely, Wild Turkey was proud of their dillapidated apprearance.  As our tour guide said, "We're making bourbon here, not a tourist attraction."  Woodford Reserve was the country club of the industry, and so on.  Also, what was regarding as essential to the process at one distillery was laughed at at another.  Keep in mind that they are all using almost identical ingredients and overarching processes, a fact of which they are all very proud.  But they are equally proud of their supposed uniqueness.  Here is a list of competing claims by our multiple tour guides.  "We hammer our grains."  "Rolling the grain produces the best flavor."  "We ferment only in cyprus harvested from swamps."  "We think cyprus adds nothing and stainless steel does the trick."  "We are showing you the cool looking cyprus vats but there are actually 38 stainless steel ones behind that wall."  "We age in a multi story warehouses and then blend for optimum flavor."  "We age in a single story warehouse for consistency of flavor."  "We have one recipe."  "We have 10 recipes." 

And so on.  I am going to try and sort through the hoopla and rank and review the tours for you soon.  But at the end of the day, the tours were a lot of fun and we got to try some fine bourbon. 

Monday, August 23, 2010

Brewery Tour Series 2

Next stop in my reverse time order brewery review series is:

Lancaster Brewing Co.  May 2010

We were here one day before visiting Victory, which I reviewed in the previous post.  We stayed in Lancaster for our 5th anniversary.  I know, we're big spenders.  The hotel we stayed at was called Lancaster Arts, which is a converted tobacco warehouse really nicely done and with a cool bar (we thought the bartender fancied himself a mixologist, but more on that some other time).  The reason I mention the hotel is that we chose the "Brewmaster's Package" which came with beer and pint glasses in the room, a tour of Lancaster Brewing Co., and a gift card to their restaurant. 

We rushed from outlet shopping for our 4:00 tour, which I specifically scheduled so that we would have one of the brewers as guide vs. a restaurant manager.  Alas, they somehow didn't have us scheduled and so the restaurant manager gave us his best effort.  LBC is also in a converted tobacco warehouse and is one of the neater breweries I've seen in terms of architecture.  We grabbed a hefeweizen from the bar, which I thought was a bit weak in flavor, but refreshing enough to carry with us on the tour.  LBC is pretty small; the tour probably lasted only 15 minutes at most.  We did get to smell some of the hops they use, and see where they store their specialty malts; their basic two-row malted barley is stored in the large silo out front.  The most interesting part for me was hearing the history, both of the building--it's haunted--and of brewing in Lancaster; we got to see some old bottles from area breweries long gone.  Then we had dinner in the pub--which overlooks the brewing floor and equipment--and shared a sampler of every beer they had on tap that night, around 12 or so.  For dinner I had the wild boar and my wife the lamb burger with feta cheese.  I thought her burger was good, the boar was fun but pretty fatty and hard to manage.  I don't love LBC's brews, but the Amish Four Grain Pale Ale is decent and since that visit I've had their Rumspringa, a Golden Bock with local honey which isn't bad.  They mixed their Milk Stout and Strawberry Wheat and called it "Chocolate Covered Strawberry" which was kind of fun.  The waitress told us, "if you were here next week you could have had the Kolsch!"  Gee, thanks.

In short, it's a nice little brewery and the food, atmosphere, and beers aren't bad, but you may just want to have a couple at the bar and eat elsewhere, the restaurant at Lancaster Arts hotel looked great but we were only in town for the night. 

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Brewery Tour Series

In a few days we'll be touring several bourbon distilleries in northern Kentucky.  This got me thinking how I've been lucky enough to tour a number of breweries, and that I should do retroactive reviews.  First up:

Victory Brewing Co., Downingtown, PA May 2010

Okay I didn't do the tour on this one just the brewpub, which is connected to the brewery buildings.  From the outside the place looks very industrial; it's in a giant parking lot with office buildings from other companies.  The crowd inside is a very mainline (read: white) crowd but the room is pretty neat, with giants banners of their different beers draped from the ceiling.  Being a brewery that focuses on German styles, their menu offers a similar bent.  The food is very good, they make a mean pretzel and some decent sandwiches.  I wouldn't write home about any of it but it was good pub fare.  They offer a dozen or more of their beers on tap, many of which Victory fans would recognize and a few seasonals.  I had a smoked, or rauchbier which I liked called Scarlet Fire and I thought their Mad King Hefeweizen was better than the Sunrise Weisse that you can find in bottles.  They also had a few specialty beers from the Craft Brewers Conference that showcase specific hop varietals, e.g. hersbrucker.  I think Victory is one of the best of the locals, even though sometimes I think their quality comes out of quantity (meaning they make so many beers a few are bound to be great).  If you're ever in that area for some odd reason--we were on the way home from Lancaster--stop in for a pint or a beer sampler.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Movie Review: Beer Wars

Beer Wars is a documentary about the history and current state of beer marketing in America.  Director Anat Baron is a former Mike's Hard Lemonade executive who knows something about creating a niche market in an industry where 2 companies make up almost 80% of sales in America.  The documentary takes a look at the craft beer movement and features a behind-the-scenes look at Dogfish Head in Milton, DE.  Founder Sam Caglione is something of a rock star in the craft beer industry, and he is quite a character.  The scenes featuring him are the best in the movie; you definitely feel for him when he shows you the documents from Annheuser-Busch that notify him he is being sued by them.  The reason?  The use of the word "Punkin'" for his Halloween beer is too generic.  The folks who represent Annheuser-Busch throughout the movie are fascinating, as well.  They make no bones about the fact that they are seeking to dominate every nook and cranny of the industry, either by making their own "craft" brews or buying out preexisting ones.

The downfall of the movie was the story of Rhonda Kallman, one of the co-founders of The Boston Beer Co., makers of Sam Adams.  She left the company to market her own product, Moonshot, a beer with caffeine.  The movie tries to make you feel for her plight as she struggles to find a niche and when Budweiser steals her idea.  I had a hard time feeling bad for someone who left a lucrative, successful job to pursue a pipe dream.  It didn't help that I felt her pipe dream was dumb.  She totally lost my support when she tries to sell out to the folks at Miller and Coors, which seemed to undermine the whole point of the movie, which bills itself as a "contemporary David and Goliath story." 

The director herself was a bit odd and the scenes with her didn't really add to the movie, though I did enjoy when a self proclaimed "Bud guy" couldn't distinguish Bud Light from Coors or Miller.  If you are a craft beer geek you probably won't learn a whole lot of new information, but there are a few interesting tidbits about the 3-tiered distribution system and how it makes it hard to get the beers we want, and about how beer lobbies support all sorts of politicians including Barack Obama; I guess his choice of Bud Light for the "beer summit" was not by chance.  I've read some scathing reviews of this film but it's really not that bad, and at 90 minutes not a huge commitment.  It held my interest as I drank a Sly Fox Rte. 113 IPA to enhance my viewing pleasure.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

George Dickel Family of Whisky

George Dickel makes the "other" Tennessee whisky, i.e., not Jack.  Tennessee whisky is in almost all ways like bourbon except for the fact that they put it through the "Lincoln County Process."  This involves filtering the whisky through maple charcoal and a layer of wool before aging it.  It can't be called bourbon because this is considered "artificial" flavoring (additionally Tennessee whisky does not necessarily have to have 51% corn, which bourbon does).  The charcoal mellows the whisky, providing sweetness and jump starting the aging process by giving the young whisky immediate contact with wood.

I've had 4 different bottles of George Dickel and thought it was time to do a little review and comparison.  These are in ascending order.  You should know I take value into account, and the middle two were really tough to sort out for that reason.  I plan to post on my value theories at a later date.  Okay without further ado:

George Dickel Cascade Hollow (red label) $20/750 ml
For me this is the worst of the bunch.  I don't have tasting notes as I had this prior to keeping them.  I just remember being so disappointed; I had had the No. 12 Label before and really liked it.  It tasted cheap and reminded me of some super cheap bourbons such as Heaven Hill and Old Crow.  I did some research and found this is supposed to be their budget whisky.  I think I just paid way too much markup.  I probably wouldn't have minded if I paid $10, at least I would have known what to expect.

George Dickel Old. No. 8 $15/750ml
This stuff is one of the best bargains in the whisky world.  A fine sipping whisky.  I am slightly hesitant to use the word "pleasant" but it's damn close.  It's...inoffensive, which sounds like damning with faint praise but if you've had other whiskies in this price class you will appreciate that comment.  I am very excited that the Quaker State of PA decided to start stocking this; I plan to use it in my version of the Blues Explosion cocktail, which I originally had at the Franklin, a cocktail bar in Rittenhouse Square (see recipe below).

George Dickel Barrel Select $35/750 ml
This is a decent whisky.  I got a bracing, floral aroma on the nose.  My tasting notes say "maple, mellow.  ember type burn; campfire" to describe the taste.  A soft medium finish.  It was good stuff but probably not comparable to the quality one can get in the bourbon world at that price. 

George Dickel No. 12 $26/1 L
Again, I have no tasting notes on this one, but I know I bought this in NY state last Thanksgiving.  I think I've seen it in Jersey since then but definitely not PA.  This would be one for my regular rotation.  To me the ideal "sippin' whisky."  Mellow but with flavor, the same price as Jack but much better.  All in all I feel this is their best offering.

Blues Explosion Cocktail

1.5 oz Tennessee Whisky
.75 oz fresh squeezed grapefruit juice
1-2 tsp. maple syrup
5-6 dashes Angostura bitters

combine ingredients, shake and strain over ice, garnish with a cherry if you like

Monday, August 16, 2010

Pub Review: Royal Tavern

The Royal Tavern, at 937 E. Passyunk Ave, is owned by the folks who own the Khyber in Old City and the pair of Cantinas, one in Northern Liberties one in South Philly.  We used to go to the Royal Tavern more often before some of the pubs near our house opened or became known to us.  It's presence was one of the reasons we chose the location of our house; cool pubs with great, affordable food within walking distance.  They have a small but thoughtful beerlist with about 8 taps and perhaps 30 bottles.  The draft list last night included Yards ESA, Golden Draak, and the one my wife and I both chose, Arcadia Ales' Whitsun, which our server described as an English wheat with honey and some hoppiness.  It was a delightful summery type beer.  Our server was very friendly, by the way, but we don't go to the Royal Tavern for the service--which in my past experience has been provided by slow and aloof hipsters--or the beer--the South Philly Taproom has a much better and bigger list.  We go for the Royal angus burger, which they claim is the best in Philly.  I for one, will not argue.

A well seasoned 8 ounce patty well proportioned to the decent roll it comes on, this carnivore's delight is topped with smoked gouda, long hot peppers, chile mayo, and bacon.  It comes with amazing fries and a delicious malt vineger aioli for dipping.  I can't tell you how fantastic this burger is.  For me, it's better than Jose Garces's Village Whisky King burger and also much cheaper, at $10 including the fries vs. Whisky King at $26 and no fries.  Even Village Whisky's cheaper burgers without foie gras will run you at least $16 with fries, and 2 more bucks for the Sly Fox dipping sauce.  But I digress.  The Royal Tavern burger is so addictive, I had a burger on Friday night at Eulogy (see previous post) and still couldn't pass it up.  It's salty, spicy, smoky, fresh, juicy, an orgy for the taste buds, if you will.  I only have two issues with it.  I ordered it medium rare and it was cooked unevenly, it was medium rare in parts but some bites were more like medium well.  I haven't had this problem in the past, though.  Also, the long hots.  As my grandpop says, "I like them but they don't like me." 

Their other food is solid, too, e.g. they do decent brunch stuff and the meatloaf sandwich is fun, but if you are able to go only once, please order the burger.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Pub Review: Eulogy Belgian Tavern

Eulogy Belgian Tavern Logo
Located at 2nd and Chestnut in Old City, Philadelphia, and boasting a beer list including over 20 draft and 300 bottled beers from across the globe, Eulogy will always have a special place in my heart as one of the places that got me hooked on good beer.  Oddly, it did so primarily on a night of excess during a bachelor party that turned me off of Belgians for a while.  I have been to Belgium and I'm sure I had some good beers there, but I was a dumb 20 year old who didn't know what was going on.  I do know I had a Stella in the town that makes it, Leuven.  When I returned home, I somehow stumbled on this Belgian bar; this was before I even knew of Monk's Cafe.   On an early visit I ordered a Hoegaarden and the waitress said that was a "girl beer" and that visit along with a series of others introduced me to the likes of Duvel, The Gnome (La Chouffe), and Piraat.  I was already familiar with Chimay.  

Fast forward to present day.  I was in there with a friend killing time before meeting my wife a week or so ago and the waitress told me I should try the Jolly Pumpkin Madrugada Obscura, their summer seasonal, which is a belgian style stout (not sure about the summer part bc/ the Jolly Pumpkin website says the beer releases in January).  Unfortunately we had to leave, but all week I was itching to give it a try, and went with some friends this past Friday night.  We were just in time as it was the last bottle in stock.  Jolly Pumpkin uses open fermentation with funky yeast strains, oak barrel aging, and bottle conditioning for all of their ales.  I won't try to explain to you how all of that works--here is a link to their process if you are interested the result is a series of funky, fruity, sour flavored beers that are very complex.  

Okay, onto the Madrugada Obscura.  It poured very dark and with a rich, chocolate tinted head.  I have a hard time describing the "nose" of beers, and we were in a crowded bar but I seem to remember a fresh fruitiness to it.  Initially the taste was quite sour, but as I drank it the malty stout character became more present.  By the end the sourness was mostly what I was getting from it.  I like Jolly Pumpkin's stuff, but I do find that the sourness, though not overpowering like a Flemish sour or a lambic, tends to dominate all of their beers.  Sour  is a flavor my palate hasn't quite adjusted to yet when found in beer.  Also, the strong flavor tended to dominate everything else I drank that night, especially the white ale made by the Leelanau label of Jolly Pumpkin, which tasted like tart water after drinking the stout.  All in all, I did quite enjoy the Madrugada and it was one of the more complex beers I've ever had if not one of my favorites.  Trying to take into account we probably drank them in the wrong order, I still felt the white ale was lacking in the effervescence and depth of flavor that I love in a German wheat or even a Belgian double wit.  The sourness seemed to overpower the style and had the opposite effect that it had on the stout--it made it seem one note and less complex.  To finish off I had a nice schwarzbier from Port Brewing which had a decent amount of roastiness to and was a welcome break from the sourness of the Jolly Pumpkins.  Oh yeah, I did eat dinner, too.  The burger is solid, and the mussels and frites are good too.  I prefer the food at a number of other brewpubs but Eulogy's beer list is tough to beat, as evidenced by my coworker calling several beer bars that "wished" they had the Madrugada.

A word about the bartender.  I didn't catch his name, but he was excellent.  He was equally comfortable discussing beer with a couple of beer geeks like my buddy and me as he was helping the patron who ordered "Something on tap that's like Stella but not Stella."  He poured him a Duvel Green.  Hey, everyone's beer journey starts somewhere, and I respect that the customer wanted to try something new.  Another guy ordered a Jack and Diet.  I wanted to tell him he was in the wrong bar. 

Friday, August 13, 2010

Bad Parenting

My dog, Tiny, loves whisky.  She likes beer, too, but especially whisky.  When I say, "whisky?!" her ears perk up and she inches closer for a sip, which she gets from me dipping my finger into whatever I happen to have in my glass at the time.  I am trying to discern if she has a palate for it.  Does she prefer wheated or ryed bourbons?  Islay or Highland scotch?  Or is she more of a simple blended girl? 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Book Review

99 Drams of Whiskey: The Accidental Hedonist’s Quest for the Perfect Shot and the History of the Drink

My sister-in-law just got me this book by Kate Hopkins for my birthday.  Obviously she knows me well (though I heard she did have a little help selecting it from her homebrewing boyfriend).  Ms. Hopkins has a well followed food blog, The Accidental Hedonist.  She was spurred to write the book by a story she heard about a man who paid $70,000 for a single bottle of whisky--Dalmore 62 Single Highland Malt Scotch--at a hotel bar in Surrey, England.  The book is her journey, with a friend, across the world of whisky to find out why someone would do such a thing.  She visits distilleries in Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Kentucky, and Tennessee.  Interspersed with her descriptions of the distillery tours and all the whiskies she tasted is a pretty thorough history of whisky.  For me this book came at the perfect time in my own whisky journey, in particular because I am setting out to visit 3 distilleries on the Bourbon trail in just a couple of weeks.  True connoisseurs may find the tasting notes cheesy--she compares the Famous Grouse to "the high school cheerleader everyone was friends with but no one can remember what happened to after graduation"--and the history lessons nothing new.  But for most of us, the book is a wonderful portal into the whisky industry and a great history textbook.  The story about the distillery master at Glen Grant opening the secret safe of Major James Grant to share a special dram with Hopkins' and her friend is priceless.  But Hopkins' is not easily romanticized and keeps all of the tours and legends in the perspective of modern whisky marketing.  She does, however, go to some effort to procure a bottle of Buffalo Trace Cabernet aged whisky from their experimental line.  

At the end of the book she talks about the future of whisky and describes a Canadian whisky called Forty Creek that distills each grain--rye, barley, and maize--separately, then ages them in different  types of barrels before marrying them into the final product.  Anyone know where I can get a bottle?  I would recommend this book to anyone who likes travel literature, whisky, history, and/or good legends and stories.  But you don't have to take my word for it.  -Lavar Burton

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Beer List

A few months back I decided to commit to what was sure to be an intense, time consuming, sweat producing endeavor.  I set out to compile a list of all of the beers I've ever had.  I had some written down, e.g. from my travels abroad, and many pieces of paper with a few beers scribbled down here and there, but mostly I was relying on my memory, which wound up serving me pretty well.  For those interested in checking out my list I made it a separate page.  I also made a disclaimer page for the real beer geek in you.  Later I will publish a "favorites" list; I am still hacking away at what should make it.   

Monday, August 9, 2010

My relationship with Liquid Bread

I can remember getting a sip of my dad’s beer at parties at my aunt and uncle’s house, probably before I was even 10 years old, and I have a picture of me “swilling” from an empty Michelob bottle. My mom told me stories of singing drinking songs at the Hofbrau house during her trip to Germany, and not wanting to drink from the stein of her large, hairy German neighbor in the famed beer hall. My uncle used to ask me to pick a number between 1-10, with any number inevitably resulting in him exclaiming, “You win! Now run and get me another beer!” I would scurry off to the fridge feeling like I won a major award. But my true love of beer developed when I studied abroad at Oxford University during college.

There has been much made of the shrinking of the pubs in England, but they are still a fascinating piece of history and remain a big part of English life. The local pubs were the most fascinating, with the older Englishmen sitting for a session of their favorite bitter or stout, playing darts and socializing, possibly with the owner’s dog lying on the floor. But the student pubs are the most fun, full to the brim until 11 PM with lively conversations and many a kicked keg. The actual colleges--like mine, Teddy Hall--even have pubs on campus. I loved trying all of the different beers, my favorite being Worthington Creamflow, maybe nothing special but made especially delicious in my memory the more time passes since it isn’t available stateside.

When I returned from my travels I went on a Rolling Rock/Miller Lite kick. As much as I appreciated the English pub ales and Belgian strong ales I had sampled while traveling abroad, I think I wasn’t quite ready and had to go through the obligatory watery American beer phase. Another possible contributor to this phase involved overindulging in a range of Belgians at Eulogy, a Belgian bar in Old City, Philadelphia, at my best friend’s bachelor party. I couldn’t stand the smell of even a Duvel for quite some time. A few years later I took a trip to Germany to visit a college buddy stationed there with the Army, and my passion for good beer was reignited. I had never had anything like a hefeweizen, cloudy and full of flavor yet easy drinking. It was eye opening. When I got home I tried most of the German imports in the local liquor store fridge before I entered the world of American craft brewing.

I had had some craft beers before, but two events a couple of years ago solidified my love for craft beer. The South Philadelphia Taproom, a beer bar near my house, has a Wheaties festival every summer, but there is no milk or spoons involved. This festival celebrates wheat beers, primarily made by American craft brewers. While some American wheat beers leave something to be desired, several were delicious and I was hooked on the craft brewing scene. I love the fact that American beer is no longer the laughing stock of the international beer scene. In fact, the local and independent spirit of craft brewers allows them to push the envelope further than many of their international counterparts. And what I love the most is that some great, affordable beer is brewed practically in my backyard, where I can see the beer being made. Touring Philadelphia Brewing Co., located in the old Weissbrod Hess building, that same summer had me totally in love with local craft brewing.

I could sing the praises of beer all day. As I am 50% Italian-American, there will always be some red wine in my blood. And my current drink of choice is the water of life, primarily bourbon but a fine scotch on occasion.  Later posts should delve into my obsession with classic cocktails.  But can wine or whisky boast the range, versatility, and complexity of beer? From a crisp, light Czech pilsner to a thick, oatmeal stout, to a sour lambic, with a range even within each style of taste, body, alcohol content, and price point, there is a beer for every person and every occasion. I want to learn more about pairing beer with food, but anyone can tell you the simple joy of beer with pizza or a dollar hot dog while taking in a baseball game. 

Beer is the drink of everyman.  I am everyman, and I love the drink.  Therefore, I love beer.


My hobby is drinking.  I have other interests, but when it comes down to it, I spend most of my free time and extra cash--or credit--on alcohol.  I need an outlet to express all the fun I've been having drinking in the City of Brotherly Love both on the town and at my home bar.  The "Grain" is simply the bent this blog will have towards beer and whisky.