Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Couple of "Revolutionary" Brews

I’m back!

I’ve been a bit underproductive as far as the blog goes because I’ve been in the midst of an event planning whirlwind. Do you remember the photo of the bale of straw and the Green Wolf Brewing Company bottle I posted a few weeks back? Well that was just a tease.


I’m proud to announce the 1780 Beer Challenge and Revolutionary War Festival on Saturday, May 16th 2015 at Green Wolf Brewing Company, in Middleburg, NY! (Click here for a map)

The Albany Ale Project, Green Wolf Brewing Co., of Middleburugh, New York, and MacKinnon Brothers Brewing Co., of Bath, Ontario, have issued each other a challenge. A beer-infused re-enactment of the 1780 stand off in Middleburgh between New York’s Canada-exiled Loyalists and the Albany County Militia, to benefit the Middleburgh Library. This time we’re doing it with hops, grain, and yeast, instead of muskets and cannons!

I’m working with Green Wolf, while Alan is working with MacKinnon Brothers to create two Revolutionary War-era inspired beers. The beers will be blind judged against each other by WNYT NewsChannel 13’s morning anchor Phil Bayly, food and drinks writer Deanna Fox, and Middleburgh Library Director Teresa Pavoldi. The winner receives bragging rights and the official “1780 Beer Challenge Champion” barrel head. The loser must hoist their opponent’s flag in their respective brewery or taproom. There will also be a “People’s Choice” vote for the best beer.

The day’s activities include a Revolutionary War encampment, colonial brewing and cooking demonstrations, 18th century toys and games for kids, talks on the history of beer and hops in upstate New York and the Schoharie Valley, a Schoharie Valley hops display at the Library, beer samples from Green Wolf and MacKinnon Brothers, and Green Wolf brewery tours. Middleburgers BBQ and Under the Nose gift shop and bakery will be offering barbecue and baked goods for sale, and Al and I will be selling and signing copies of their book Upper Hudson Valley Beer. The day culminates in “The 1780 Beer Challenge”, cask tapping and tasting of the two Rev War brews!

You might ask why Middleburgh? Middleburgh is a tiny little hamlet, about a half hour’s drive south west from Albany. It’s the very definition of small town America, and nestled amongst green mountains and the rolling farmlands of the Schoharie valley. But 235 years ago, it was not such a quiet little spot.

In 1780, as the American Revolution raged, another war—a civil war—was being fought on New York's frontier. Neighbor battled neighbor in an escalating conflict between those loyal to the British Crown and those bent on independence. During the 1770s, many New York Loyalists, including Sir John Johnson and the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, were forced off their land, finding refuge in southern Canada. Set on disrupting the borderlands, Johnson returned to New York in 1780 having raised his Loyalist King’s Royal Regiment of New York while in Canada. With Brant and his Mohawk warriors, Johnson aimed to lay waste to the fertile Mohawk and Schoharie valleys—the “breadbasket” of the Revolution. They embarked on a slash and burn campaign, destroying what had once been their own farms and grain fields, in order to starve the Continental Army.

What Johnson wasn’t expecting was the dogged determination of a rag-tag group of Albany militia and volunteers protecting local families and defending the middle fort—“Fort Defyance”—at Middleburgh, led by Colonel Peter Vrooman, and the sharpshooting hero of the Battle of Saratoga, Timothy Murphy. Low on ammunition, outnumbered three to one and under cannon-fire, the Continental commander, Major Melancthon Woolsey, ordered the surrender of the fort. Murphy, against orders fired over the heads of the approaching Loyalist truce party three times, refusing to relinquish the fort and rallying the defenders behind him. The patriot’s refusal to yield their position cost the Loyalists precious time on their advance north. Although Johnson’s successful campaign devastated the Schoharie farmlands, the delay at the middle fort would help the American forces marching from Albany to halt Johnson’s attacks in the Mohawk Valley.

Today, Justin Behan of Green Wolf Brewing Co. is producing some really great brews just about a mile from where Johnson’s raiders marched on the fort, and the MacKinnon Brothers, up in Ontario, are brewing on their family farm, settled by their Loyalist ancestors in 1784.

The story kinda’ writes itself. But what about the beer, you ask?

Although the Loyalists and Patriots of 1780 disagreed on their allegiances, beer was a commonality. Whether in Canada or Central New York, the beer these two groups made during the American Revolution was similar. Both were strong—7% to 10% ABV; both used Cluster hops and locally grown grain—most often wheat, or other grain, rather than barley; and both used similar brewing techniques—like using chopped straw as a filter, to prevent the grain from becoming a gluey mess during the mash (Now that bale of straw in the photo makes sense, huh?) It’s this kind of strong, locally sourced wheat ale that Green Wolf and MacKinnon Brothers will do battle with.

Admission for the 1780 Beer Challenge and Revolutionary War Festival is $15 (for adults 21 years of age and older) and includes beer sampling tickets and a Green Wolf sampler glass, or $35 for sampling tickets, a Green Wolf sampler glass, and a signed copy of Hudson Valley Beer. Admission for non-drinkers, or those 20 years of age or younger is $10. Children and teenagers under 15 are FREE! All ages are welcome but you must be 21 to drink.

So pick your side—Loyalist or Patriot—and head out to Middleburgh for a little beer and history!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Your Beer Isn't As Innovative As You Think It Is

I was informed last week that, apparently, some beer styles are dated. These styles being, Porter, Oatmeal Stout, Red Ale, Brown Ale, etc... Now, I’m assuming they're dated in regards to more currently popular trends such as triple IPAs and sours, and innovative techniques like barrel aging.

Hmm.

I think we need to define our parameters a bit. According to Merriam Webster, to trend is an intransitive verb meaning to “extend in a general direction or to follow a general course”; and innovative is an adjective meaning “introducing or using new ideas, devices or methods.” I think beer folk have a tendency to to think the those two terms are part in parcel concordant to one another. They are not, and trends are not necessarily a result of innovation.

Yes, beer trends, its always has. Beer evolves over time. Beer changes because the public’s taste changes. Styles wane and return. Its strength rises and falls and its ingredients change. But Porter is no more dated than say Gose. Sure, Gose is currently popular now, but trends ebb and flow, and the popularity of a style at any one particular time doesn’t accurately reflect that style’s arc. In fact the arc of Porter brewing in the United States far exceeds that of the arc of Gose brewing at this point, so implying that Gose—or any number of other styles which have recently begun to appear on the American scene—is some how superior to Porter because of its current popularity is a bit like saying Meghan Trainor is better than Led Zeppelin because “All About That Bass” was the breakout hit of 2014 and Zeppelin hasn’t released an album since 1982’s Coda. One beer stye is not better or more important or more relevant than another. It's the long game that matters.

Now then, onto innovation. As far as I can tell the most innovative things to happen to beer in recent history fall in this order (and I’m sure I’ll miss a few, but you’ll get my point): The invention of the modern mercury thermometer and the Fahrenheit scale (1724) and saccharometer (1770); Watt’s steam engine (1781), the advent of microbiology and pasteurization (1875); commercial refrigeration (1876), the perfection of bottling technology (1897); wide spread electricity and the assembly line (1914), and the perfection of canning (1934); and the development of the programmable logic controller (1968). Those are beery innovations. Those events “introduced and used new ideas, devices or methods”. 

This might be a good time to debunk a few "innovative" misconceptions. 

Double, Triple or Imperial: Strong, bitter beers are not innovative. Strong, bitter beer has been around for centuries. During the 19th century British brewers put as much as 10 pounds of hops into each (36 imperial gallon) barrel of their strong stock ale. Imperial as a term to denote “the strongest” has been around for almost 200 years, and not just in reference to stout. 

Sour beer: Sour beer is not innovative. Cantillon has been brewing intentionally sour beer since 1900, and 3 Fonteinen has been blending Gueze for 128ish years. I dig Jolly Pumpkin as much as the next guy, but again innovative isn’t the right word to describe them. "A great brewery" works just fine.

Barrel-aging: Barrel aging is not innovative. For as long as wood staves have been held together by metal loops, beer has been placed in that wood to age. What about barrel aging in a spirits barrel? Okay, that was a bit innovative for Goose Island’s Greg Hall to fill six Jim Beam casks with Stout at the Great American Beer Fest—back in 1992. Twenty-three years ago.

Yeah, that’s right the hottest trend in brewing today—spirit barrel aging of beer—has been happening for nearly a quarter century.

Low ABV beer: Low ABV beer (just like high ABV beers) are not innovative. Low ABV beers did not come about because of the drinking “session”. Aside from small and table beers—brewed most often for children and invalids—most low ABV beer was produced as a nutritional supplement for laborers working extended hours in fields or in factories. The modern “session” beer is not the result of innovation either. It’s a result of British beer gravities dropping after both WWI and WWII, in which beer making ingredients either ended up on the bottom of the Atlantic, or were rationed for the war effort. These low ABV, often cask beers caught on, and eventually became to be seen as "traditional".  By the 1970s and 80s, they were being championed by CAMRA and the term “session” was born in the late 1980s and 1990s, says Martyn. By the way, “session" strength IPA isn’t innovative either. According to Ron, Barclay Perkins IPAs of the 1940s hovered at about 3.5% ABV. 

Ingredients: Ingredients do not make for innovation. Non-traditional brewing ingredients like herbs, spices, spruce, honey, old beer, capsicum, and licorice root have been used in brewing for eons. Vanilla, coffee, and fruit are just continuations of a previous practice. Also, new hop varieties—like Nelson Savin—are not innovative. That would be like saying a Labradoodle is more innovative than a Rottweiler. 

Newness. A new beer is not automatically innovative. A new to you beer is not innovative. A beer or brewer that you are being told is innovative most likely is not innovative.

So, to review. The jet-engine was an innovation. The Beatles were innovative. Barrel-aged sour beers are just trendy beer.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Sneak Peek

All I'm saying is, it's gonna be Revolutionary. More to come in a few weeks...


Monday, March 23, 2015

Double the Fun

I have to say,  I'm a bit excited about two upcoming events. Partly because I had a hand in organizing them, but mostly because I think they are a going to be a great way to bring some really great beer to a new audience.

On Friday, May 27th through Sunday the 29th, my great friend Paul Engel (of whom I've known for... er, uh... just shy of 30 years) is hosting The Spring Cask Tap at his tavern, the Allen Street Pub. If you've never been, to the pub it's the perfect mix of great craft beer and neighborhood dive-iness—go read what the good Dr. McLeod had to say about the ASP.

In any case, Paul is really into cask beer—I mean really into it—in fact he's a trained cellarman, and that's the impetus for the Spring Cask Tap. To bring in as much great cast beer as he can and revel in it. He's getting local casks, including ones from Argyle Brewing Company, and Wolf Hollow Brewing Company—and an oak cask of Bert's DQ'd Imperial Stout from Wandering Star in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He's also bringing in two UK-made brews—Postman's Knock from Hobsons, and Dark Star Original, and I imagine a few a few other surprises, too. The star of the show, however, might be BFM's Cuvée Alex Le Rouge—one of only 20 casks imported into the U.S

It's totally free to get in, too.

The following weekend, April 4th, my pal Dora Philip, owner of The Hollow Bar + Kitchen, in downtown Albany, will be hosting the Upper Hudson Valley NanoFest. She asked myself and local beer blogger/author Chad Polenz if we wanted to do a book and beer event, and it exploded into a mini-beer fest featuring five local nano breweries and ten different beers!

The Hollow has become a hot spot for great music and fantastic food, so bringing in great local beer was a no-brainer. The five breweries involved are Argyle Brewing Co., Green Wolf Brewing Company, Rare Form (Troy), Honey Hollow Brewing Company (Earlton) and The Beer Diviner (Stephentown). Chad and I will selling and signing books, as well. NanoFest is a ticketed event, and tickets are available at the Hollow before April 4th for $20, and on the day of the event for $25.

The Allen Street Pub is located at 332 S. Allen Street in Albany. For any questions call (518) 391-9258.

The Hollow Bar + Kitchen is located at 79 N. Pearl Street in Albany. For any questions call (917) 279-8817.



  

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Beery Existentialism - Part Deux

I’ve had a recent revelation.

I don’t enjoy craft beer bars—and by “craft bar" I mean a bar which exclusively serves craft beer, or high-end imports, rather than a brewery taproom, or a brewpub.

Often, when I walk into a craft bar, I get the same feeling I did when I walked into class—mid lecture—after a dentist appointment in high school. All eyes on me. I feel uncomfortable in craft bars, and I’m the kind of person that feels pretty comfortable in most situations. I feel un-cool in craft bars. The problem is, craft beer has become “cool”, and seeing as how I’m not very “cool”, I really do get a tinge of un-cool high school kid anxiety in craft bars. I feel like I don’t know something that everyone else knows, or that I don’t have enough tattoos, or I'm not drinking the right beer. So, to make things simpler, I don’t go to them, at least not very often.

I am much more comfortable in a bar that has a great beer selection but isn’t necessarily a “craft” bar. I like the dive, or the dart league bar, or the neighborhood watering hole where two people can sit at the bar having a conversation about the local high school football team while one drinks from an aluminum bottle of Coors, and the other drinks a pint of the latest and greatest from Stillwater Artisanal. I like the happy co-existence of Bud Light and barrel-aged stouts.

I have no problem with the “craft” bar—and I don’t begrudge their existence—but they might not feel the same way about me.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Albany Ale: The Dark Side of Albany Ale

By “dark” I don’t mean porter or stout.

For the last five years, I’ve researched and celebrated Albany’s brewing history and heritage. I’m glad I did. I've come to realize that beer was a major part of Albany’s cultural and societal fabric. Without a doubt beer helped to shape what Albany was and what it would become. Albany owes a lot to beer, and that's a good thing.

But there is a downside to that. A rather terrible downside. A city that builds itself on a drug—and yes, alcohol is very much a drug—will eventually have to deal with the ill-effects of that drug. In beer’s case—alcoholism, abandonment, and orphanhood. It was during the post Revolutionary, period where we see the collision of pre-industrial colonial drinking habits in which, to some extent, beer benefited Albany’s population by providing a potable alternative to the city’s often contaminated water, as well as being a nutritional supplement; with the reality of industrialized, population-wide drunkenness.

By the 1820s, even before the meteoric rise of the city’s modern brewing industry and during the infancy of Albany Ale, alcoholism was rampant in the city. Albany’s gifted and award winning journalist and biographer Paul Grondahl covers this period of Albany’s history at the beginning of his book, Now is The Time, about the history of Parsons Child and Family Center. Parsons has operated in Albany for 186 years, and today it “is the largest multi-services agency in New York’s Capital Region dedicated families and their children. The agency provides counseling services, parenting education, child abuse/neglect prevention and treatment, family strengthening programs, early childhood family support, special education, youth development programs, and mental health services.” According to their website.

However, in 1828, a year before Orrisa Heely opened the Albany Orphan Asylum (later to become Parsons Child and Family Center), there was nothing but, literally, the poorhouse—a woefully under funded, government assisted poorhouse—and the meager alms collected by the Dutch Reformed Church.

Albany saw unprecedented growth in the 1820s, due largely to the completion of the Erie Canal, and although some in the city were thriving economically, others—many others—were not. Poverty was everywhere. Beer did not help. The combination of easily available alcohol and destitution gave rise to alcoholism, and with alcoholism came abandonment. Heeley’s own husband left her after the death of their infant child. Homeless and orphaned children roamed the streets in incredible numbers, competing with hogs for food and shelter. A law passed in 1820 required that any child found begging in the city to be sent to the poorhouse until ”some proper person shall be found to take such a child.” As you can imagine that “proper person” did not come around often. Grondhal wrote of the poorhouse in his book:
“…the city’s poorhouse, opened in the early 1820s, was almost immediately inadequate to meet Albany’s needs…Some widowed or deserted mothers and their children were taken in there, but it was not conducive to family life.”
He continues, later in the chapter, writing about the city’s indigent, it’s plentiful alcohol and the unfortunate result.
“Several of the poorhouse residents had entered its doors after serving time in Albany’s jail. The jail was built in 1810 to punish drunk and disorderly conduct and more sinister crimes.The city was awash in alcohol. Albany was also a center for brewing and produced 42,000 barrels of beer in 1829, of which 12,000 barrels were not exported and were consumed locally—equal to one-half barrel for every man, woman and child in the city. An estimated 415 tavern, shops, and market stalls sold liquor in Albany at that time. It was little wonder that the city was home to about 500 chronic drunkards and nearly 200 people died from complications related to alcohol abuse in 1830—one of the primary avenues to orphanhood for the children left behind in the wreckage of those who succumbed to the disease of alcoholism.”
That’s all past us now, right? Not quite

Sure, beer is cool, and beer is hip—especially in today’s climate, and with the growing popularity of craft beer—but we are not that far removed from the ills of 1829. Alcoholism is still major issue in our society even 186 years later.

Otherwise Parsons—or places like them—still wouldn’t need to be open.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Another Country Heard From or, In Wine There Is Truth

I don't usually re-post other writer's work verbatim, but today I'm going to buck tradition.

Carlo DeVito's recent post about craft beer's rather self-indulgent "pyrotechnics"—as he calls them—struck a chord with me. What he writes isn’t particularly revolutionary, and as far as beer folk go, it’s a rather beaten horse conversation. The “experiments” (again using his word) have been justified time and time again as a “what is made is what the market demands" and "experimentation makes for good beer". 

That might (or might not) be the case, but what makes Carlo’s point so interesting is that he doesn’t normally write about beer. Rather, he’s an accomplished publishing executive, and editor with an affinity for wine. In fact he owns the Hudson-Chatham Winery, in Columbia County, New York. But don’t get him wrong, Carlo likes beer—he sites Scotch Ale as a particular favorite. He enjoys the occasional glass of fermented grain, rather than his usual one of fermented grapes, every once in a while. But that’s about as far as it goes for him. However, at the same time, he can look at the craft beer industry through wine-industry colored glasses, and having published a good number of boozy books over his career, he comes with a unique perspective.

Now, beer folk may simply choose to write Mr. DeVito off as a novice, or a slightly ill-informed, under schooled beery dilettante—a moniker he chooses to call himself. But, perhaps, rather than showing him to the door with a polite wave, craft beer might do itself a favor by reading his post, and considering his opinion—and then maybe read it again.

Here you go:

What's Next For Local Beer? Pyrotechnics Versus Quality. 
Notes From a Beer Amateur

By Carlo DeVito

Scotch ale is a great beer. Malty and almost semi-sweet. Done right, it is one of my favorite beers. And tasting one recently brought me to a very weird question.

I am not a beer authority. I have been lucky enough in life to get hang out with some of the better ones. I published Michael Jackson years ago when I was at Running Press. And I was lucky enough to work with Tim Webb, Ben McFarland Stephen Beaumont, and Joshua M. Bernstein among many, as well as local beer authorities like Josh Christie, Chad Polenz, Julia Burke, and others.

That doesn't make me an expert...it makes me a dilettante.

Now, there are two things I want to say here. First, I have been a HUGE fan of the craft beer explosion. I have had immense fun watching what's been going on.

Secondly, I love seeing the inventive new products coming from the craft beer explosion. I love the experimentation and I love the collaboration. I think it is all very cool!

Thirdly, I am friends and acquaintances with a number of brewers, and I love talking to them about beer, and have even worked on a few collaboration beers myself.

That said, I am left wondering where we are with the craft beer revolution. Right now I see the evolution of a paradigm - the Pyrotechnics Versus Quality Beer.

Already there has begun a backlash of the over hopping of craft beer. The double and triple IPAs, the Black IPAs. It seems these days if it' not over hopped, it's not considered good. And I applauded the original trend. But of course, nothing in America succeeds like excess. I, like others, think the trend has gone too far. Brett too seemed to be the rage for sometime, though I seem to suddenly be hearing less and less about that.

I guess you can say that about almost every category. From Pumpkin stout, to chocolate stout, to gingerbread stout, etc.

But here's what I am wondering. I have skin in the local craft beverage business. And I am a fan. But here's what I ask as a drinker, and then some... Where does it all end? When do we just brew good beer instead of crazy beer? Is it all pyrotechnics, or is settling to be a quality maker not enough?

My favorite brewery, though I love trying beers from Mikkler and all the others, are places like Samuel Smith, Brooklyn Brewery, and a handful of others.

If all you do as a small brewery is concentrate on wild new experiments, then at what point do you flare out?

Asking someone to be the next Samuel Smith, by the way, is like asking someone to be the next Mouton Rothchild. In wine terms, Samuel Smith's is a First Grown brewery.

But where does the madness end? Or doesn't it?

I come to this question because I recently went somewhere, I tasted a lovely Scotch Ale. I love Scotch Ale. This was luscious and malty and just perfect. And I was relieved. Because the last two or three Scotch Ales I've tried were completely over hopped, and ruined in my humble opinion. There so many classic styles, is it not enough to make three or four or five well?

I am not trying to be a curmudgeon. I am a beer fan. And I love the experiments and trying new things. But the industry cannot sustain this level of experimentation forever. I saw the shakeout in the 1990s, and expect, in the craft business, that one will happen sooner than I like, and I will lament the loss of our fellow brethren. I might be a loser myself...lol. I am a business owner. I know these margins are thin. I am rooting for these guys. But when the shake out happens, who will be left standing?

There are smarter minds than mine on this question. As I said, I am a dilettante. But the landscape is rising up around me. In the Hudson Valley alone there are near 15-20 breweries. And around the state, there are multitudes more. I love it. I think the malling of North America has been a disgusting farce. And there is a certain glee I experience when I see the ghost malls springing up over the landscape (I admit a kind of self-righteous, sadistic Cormwellian sneer at these), and I love that the craft beverage business because it returns uniqueness to the individual regions. I love tasting new things and I love tasting things that are peculiar to a region. I like that local thing. I like that uniqueness. It is what makes traveling fun!

I know I am asking a big question. I know there is no answer. I know I am not equipped nor own the bonafides to give a proper answer. That's for the big guys to take on.

But from my lowly spot on the beer totem pole (actually I am not even on it), as a local purveyor, I wonder if it will affect the region and the other craft beverage producers? I am sure someone can even turn the question around on me, and ask them same of the wineries or the distilleries or the cideries.

But the question remains, at one point doesn't quality win out over pyrotechnics? Does making good beer beat experimentation at one point? Maybe I'm wrong and this was a waste of space, but I thought I'd at least ask the question. How does local beer sustain itself for the long haul?

To me, it all rests on a simple glass of Scotch Ale.