Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Beers on Film*

Apparently Hollywood has come to drinkdrank this week. You'd think it'd be warmer.

Since I gave the boys from Brooklyn a shout-out about their beery film, I thought I'd do the same for Chris Bowen and his unfinished Magnum Opus—Arctic AlchemyHow do these sound for plot devices? A ghost ship, a 161 year old-bottle of beer, a President, a Queen, a few thousand miles and a couple of motorcycles. Epic stuff, I'd say.

Have a look for yourself:

Like the Brooklynites, Chris also has a kickstarer campaign going. Beer and movie making costs money, ya' know. Go pledge for the epic-ness of it all.

*That was intended to be sung—in your head—to the tune of Girls on Film by Duran Duran.

Monday, January 28, 2013

It's not About Albany Ale, But... is about brewing in New York—Brooklyn, New York to be exact.

I read a story on the Daily New's website about three guys—John Weber, Kim Bjorheim, and Bennett Aube—who after taking a tour of Brooklyn's former and current breweries, decided to make a movie.

Yeah, that's right, a movie. A 50-minute documentary called Brewed in Brooklyn, actually.

In making the moviethe trio interviewed historians, spoke with current Brooklyn brewers, and even talked with borough's home brewing community. From Miss Rheingold to world's smallest production brewery at Coney Island—the boys unearthed the history of what they refer to as the "one-time brewing capital of the U.S."

I might have a little issue with that title.

I'll stifle my opinions on the capitol-ness of New York State's brewing history—this time—because the boys need a little help. The guts of the production are done, but the fellas' have started a kickstarter campaign to raise the last $20,000—to put in all the finishing touches—like music and editing. That's worth 20 large, right?

How about I let them explain...

Pledging ends at 5:36pm EDT on Sunday, March 10, 2013.

Got that? Not 5:37. Not 5:40. 5:36pm EDT.

So, go and check-out their kickstarter page and give a few bucks, for a good beery cause and maybe you'll see your name in the credits. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Albany Ale: True Colors

Aside from arguing over the beerines of beer this week, I’ve also gotten myself into a bit of a history project with the, always fantastic, Boak & Bailey. We still have a number of kinks to work out before we jump into the nuts and bolts of this endeavor, but it did cause me to go back and cross-reference a few sources through out the history of Albany Ale. All this looking over hill and dale, revealed something interesting about the possible color of the elusive Albany Ale.

Before we get into color, though we need to get into strength a bit and the digging into Matthew Vassar’s brewing records done by Ron, Alan and Chad, comes in handy at this point. Vassar, essentially, brewed two strengths of beer—single and double, producing 30% more of the later strength. He also used two kinds of malt pale and high-dried. Vassar wasn’t technically an “Albany” ale brewer, having lived in Poughkeepsie 90 miles south of Albany, but I suspect his beer and Albany Ale were quite similar.

In fact, the beers from his 1833-34 day book, match up very neatly to the generic recipe testified about, during the 1835 New York Senate hearing on brewing practices, by Thomas Read, a brewer from Troy, New York—a town just eight miles up the Hudson River from Albany. Read’s reported recipe, and Vassar’s double ale gravities’ both fall—generally—between 1.099 and 1.110. They were hopped at similar rates, and both breweries, on occasion, used a small addition of salt. The only real divergence between the two, is that Read and many of the Albany brewers testified to adding a bit of honey to their brews.

We know that at some point Albany (little a) ale, began to be marketed as Albany (big A) Ale, during the 1850s. This when we began to see both John Taylor and Amsdell Bros., adding the “XX” strength indicator to their—for lack of a better term—“branding”. Taylor dubs their medium-strength brew as “Albany Imperial XX Ale”, while Amsdell, simply goes with as “Albany XX Ale”.

I might be wrong, but “XX Ale” seems like a double-talk way of saying "Double Ale", doesn’t it?

After all this XX and Double stuff, you might ask: What does strength have to do with color? In the aggregate nothing, but when it comes to the branding and advertising of Albany Ale, there is a connection.

To find the connection we need to fast forward, from the mid 18th century, to the turn of the 20th Century. Amsdell Brewing and Malting Company now, produces a number of beers, in a variety of strengths and colors—from their dark and strong, 7%, Diamond Ale, to their little, pale 4.5%, Polar Ale. In the second-tier strength position, of these brews, and what is listed in their log book as simply, and logically, is XX Ale. The grist of these mild-mannered XX Ales, is pretty typical of the time—6-row pale malt, corn and brewing sugars. Everything you’d expect to find in an American beer of that time. But there was, one more ingredient, an ingredient that makes all the difference—black malt. Amsdell averaged about 15 pounds of black malt in their XX grist’s, enough, not to blacken the beer, but just deepen it into a coppery-amber hue (for you brewing geeks, think of an SRM of 12º or 13º). 

Jumping back into the time machine—let’s look at Vassar again, specifically his use of high-dried malt. 19th century high-dried malt, was a dried at different temperature than that of pale malt, producing something similar to a mix between a modern Munich and Vienna malts—basically an enzymatic Amber malt.

Are you starting to see the connection, yet?

In the mid-1830s Vassar is producing a good bit of Amber Double Ale; while 65 years later, Amsdell is still producing an Amber Double ale—and not only that, a bunch of it. From 1900 to 1901, almost 60% of Amsdell’s output is XX. Amsdell did produce some pale beer, including the occasional Pale XX, but if the numbers indicate anything—the amber version of XX was by far the most popular. 

There were a few other, not so subtle clues, along the way. By the later half of the 19th century, two other Albany breweries had begun an association of color with strength. The 1886 publication of the Bi-centennial History of Albany notes that the Broadway brewery, owned by Carroll and MacDonald produced—among other beers—Amber XX. Two years later in 1888, The Empire State: Its Industries and Wealth notes that Quinn and Nolan were making Cream XX Amber ale, as well. 

As spotty as it still may be, there does seem to be a bloodline—an amber-colored bloodline—between Vassar’s Double Amber Ale of the 1830s and Amsdell’s XX of 1901.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Bacon and Eggs Beer

I performed an experiment this weekend, coincidentally, just before a discussion of the beeriness of beer over at Alan’s place. More on the experiment later. First though, an explanation of said discussion. It stems from Jeff Allworth’s assertion that, as a generality, the new-ish fad of extreme ingredient beers is, in his opinion, un-necessary and the results are usually pretty lousy—not always, but usually. In a nutshell his argument is that just because beer can emulate pie, or fettucini alfredo, or whatever, doesn’t mean it should. As he puts it: 

“…anything that might plausibly be sold as a candy bar, salad, or entree is not worth drinking.”

I can get behind that. In fact, I argued a similar sentiment when I wrote about the crime against nature that is Wynkoop’s Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout.

When it comes to breakfast, the chicken is
dedicated, but the pig is committed.
The good doctor McLeod’s position, however, is less about taste and more about identity. He argues that the more non-fermentable ingredients that are added to a beer the less of a beer it becomes. At some point he surmises, beer will have so many add-ons that it will no longer be beer, or at the very least become beer plus something else. Furthermore, he suggests that these added on to beers will end up (or perhaps have ended up) being sold at a premium, as he has often coined as suckerjuice. He believe these products should be classified as non-beer or beer plus X ingredient(s), and marketed as such. All of this, he believes, results in a loss, or at the least the shrouding, of skill in brewing, and the moving away from the simplicity of the nuanced flavors of malt, hops yeast and water, to an over complicatedness of the beeriness of beer.

Fair enough, but I don’t agree.

Let me put it this way. I like pancakes—and $2.00 pancakes are a great deal, but I don’t think $3.00 blueberry pancakes—even though I may have paid a little more for them—have diluted the essence of the original pancakes. The other thing is, sometimes I don’t want simplicity—and this is where the experiment comes in. 

Founders Breakfast Stout surprised me—and I’m not often surprised by beer. Arguably, it is one of the most adulterated brews out there—two kinds of chocolate, two varieties of coffee and oatmeal for good measure. The intention of this beer was to emulate a great cup of coffee. I have to say it does amazingly well. From the tap it’s creamy and dense with a whollop of roasted coffee-ness. It’s nearly 9%, but it’s also one of those beers that I could drink all night long—that is until I slumped off the bar stool, onto the floor in a puddle of my own drool. It’s fantastic, complex stuff.

I wondered, however, could this Breakfast Stout really stand up to an actual breakfast? So, off to the cast iron skillet I went to find out. Two eggs, bacon, a buttered English muffin and a pint mug full of the Founders later, I was pleasantly surprised. Even with those formidable flavors and textures—the saltiness of the bacon, the creaminess of the eggs and crisp buttered crumpet, the Founders held up. Gone now, however, was that coffee-essence. No longer, did I taste strong espresso, but rather bittersweet cocoa—like a rich, Belgian dark chocolate with every bite and sip. It was almost as if the breakfast was needed to reveal that layer. Truly, and again, Founders Breakfast Stout is fantastic stuff. But how amazing would it be without all those elements? Is it it's stoutness, or is it the coffee? Is it the oatmeal or the chocolate? Maybe it’s all of them doing somersaults overtop of each other. I don't see how any of that dilutes or convolutes it's beeriness. Honestly, I don’t care. Call it beer—or beer + oatmeal + chocolate + coffee. Sell it for ten dollars or 100 dollars. Sell it only on Wednesdays from the back of a van that says “THE NOT BEER VAN”. I don’t care, it’s good, and that’s what matters to me.

Maybe I’m the sucker of the suckerjuice, but I don’t see how creating another classification within the already convoluted beer taxonomy is going to reduce the cost or give added value to anything. Honestly, that ship has already sailed. The beer biz is not about, nor has it ever been about, great beer at a great price. Some beers are good and some are bad, some are cheap and some are a rip-offs—regardless of their add-ons or purity. I don't think it's as slippery of a slope as Alan might want to believe. I don't think that five or ten years down the line, all will be lost to eggplant parmesan infused non-beer. Just as is beauty, beer will always be in the eye of the beholder.

In the end, I just hope my love of beer doesn’t ever come down to a cost benefit analysis.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Martyn Cornell is Better at This Than I Am

And I hate him for it.

Okay, maybe hate is too strong of a word, but I am insanely jealous of him.

Aside from being obviously smarter than me; getting to brew his own beer—commercially; and knowing when and when not to use a comma, now he’s posted not one, but two astounding articles on his blog, Zythophile.

Shut up Martyn.
In the first, he not only debunks and disproves First We Feast’s top twenty most influential beers of all time, but garners 164 comments and, according to his twitter feed a few days after the post, 10,000 hits on his site in two days—at a rate of 200 per hour. That’s a third of what drinkdrank’s had in the nearly two years it’s been up.

Well la-de-dah.

What’s next Mr. Cornell—more IPA myth busting?

Goddamn it! Fucking Viking brewing?!

C’mon—how do you compete with that? I’ve got pithy insights to the current state of beer; I’ve even got interesting stories about historical brewing. What I don’t have is 10,000 hits in 48 hours. What is he made of—magic and Maris Otter?

Fine. Go read Zythophile. and see what he’s on about over there. See if I care.

Maybe then you’ll hate him too.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Long Term Relationship

I’ve sat on her patio at the corner of Lark Street and Madison Avenue, what seems like thousands of time. It really is the best people watching in the city. Tipsy hobos dancing to music blasting from a nearby car; mothers chasing after their broods— pushing strollers filled with everything but their toddlers. People wearing all sorts of clothes, some that should be worn and most that should not. Usually, I’m with friends, yapping away about work or telling some stupid story—something hoppy in hand, and our empty pint glasses stand guard on the black, wire table. My favorite is mid-summer when the days are long and warm. Sparrows flutter between tables and under chairs grabbing bits of popcorn that have fallen to the concrete slab below our feet while the conversations of the pubs al fresco patrons waft in the summer breeze. Sometimes I get there first; sometimes I’m the only one on the patio. I sit and sip, watching cars slow to a temporary stop at the light, and then roll off down the street. I’ll nod to someone walking through the entryway from the street to the patio. Sometimes they return from inside with a pint, and we’ll chat about sports or beer. Other times I’m left out there alone, just reading the paper and sipping on my beer.

I’m there, as well, when the cold northeast winds rise in autumn, and the nights become longer. I make my afternoon pilgrimage, winding my way through Albany’s old streets from work to the pub, greeted daily by a scarecrow of a man, as I walk through the front door. He’s ubiquitously perched in corner near the front windows drinking an aluminum bottle of Bud Lite. With the patio closed for the season, I settle in on one of the stools that line the bar. Never at the tables that line the back wall, or back by the dart boards in the rear room of the building. Always on one of the three or four stools that sit between the bar top's two tap towers. Even with her bevy of taps laid out before me, I turn my head to read the board—chalked with her latest offerings—three-dollar pints during her three o’clock to seven o’clock happy hour, with the occasional bump in price for rarity or strength.

In the summer she’s open and airy—her sliding front windows yawning—letting the bustle street come right up to the bar. In the winter—when the afternoon melts into evening—she’s comforting and warm. Her lamps throwing amber light over dark wood, emulating the palette of the beers she serves. Simply put, she is friendly, and you are a friend the moment to walk through her door.

She is the Lionheart.

Monday, January 7, 2013

I'm Drawing the Line

I'm pretty open-minded when it comes to beer. I'm not a big fan of fruited beer, but generally speaking I'll drink just about everything. I think the same can be said about my forgiveness of the beer gimmick, as well. If you want to brew a beer based on Jake from Adventure Time, by all means, do it. If it's good, all the better. I do have a limit, though.

That limit is bull testicle beer.

I'll be honest, I didn't think I'd ever write those three words consecutively, but thanks to Wynkoop Brewing, I was given the, uh, opportunity.

Their soon-to-be-released-nationally, Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout, has a few, let's call them, obstacles I'm having some trouble overcoming. Honestly it's not just the two big ones you might thinking about, either. It's more than the simple shock and awe of it. We're basically talking about meat beer, here. It's not just the ball part that's disturbing (well, it is, but that's not the whole of it.) I don't think I could get behind a ground chuck or brisket beer either. A little beer mixed into ground beef, yeah that might be pretty tasty in a Big Kahuna Burger, but not so much the other way around. Hot dogs are good. Beer is good. Hot dog beer—not so good. Throw in a reproductive organ and I'm out.

Some of you may object to the gimmickiness of the whole endeavor—like its canned, two-pack packaging. That doesn't bother me in the least—rain gonna' fall, wind gonna' blow, and breweries gonna' try and sell beer. How effective will that gimmick be? Game of Thrones ale versus bull gonad beer—seems like a no-brainer, to me.

The Stout may be wonderful—superb in fact. I know I said that I'm am an open-minded beer drinker, but I have decided to abstain from this one. It's easy to abstain when you're vomiting. I think Jules Winnfield has an appropriate quote for this situation:
Hey, sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I'd never know 'cause I wouldn't eat the filthy motherfucker.
I can't agree more. 

So, call me close-minded, but I'll stick with the other kind of beer nuts.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The End of an Era?

Mahar's is all but done.

That might not be significant to those of you in Glascow or Toronto, but to Albany's—actually New York state's—beer scene it's a pretty big deal.

Photo courtesy of
Mahar's was ahead of the curve. It was a beer bar when beer bars were unfashionable—stalwart in it's offering of great, classic British beer and the best of American craft beer. Their coolers spilled with hundred's of bottles of brew from across the world and their beer engines pumped real ale from breweries nearly unheard of in the U.S. It was warm and cozy, the perfect place to lean on the bar and have a laugh and a pint with a friend. Granted, it was place of rules—no raucous or rude behavior, allowed—and you needed to know how to order your beer, or bare the brunt of a good natured admonishment. The older denizens of the pub will remember having to switch on your table's wall sconce to order a big bowl of banger and mash, and the next round of London Pride. Mahar's was truly the opposite of every other bar in Albany in the late 1990s and early 2000s. People flocked to Mahar's for the people, the atmosphere, and most of all the beer.

Mahar's was my local.

And then it wasn't.

Part of it was, with a new job, came a new direction by which I traveled home. One that didn't pass by the little blue building at the head Madison Avenue. Some of it was also that I was starting a family, and as will happen, I just didn't have the time to pop down to pub, like I once had. Mostly though, I didn't want to go there anymore.

You may have noticed that I wrote Mahar's was a number of times, and that's the crux of the problem. Mahar's was like that, but hasn't been like that for quite a while. As is the granny with alzheimers, it is a shell of it's former self. The little pub, that was at one time a little rough around the edges became shabby—and now just dumpy. The amazing selection of worldly beer has become, less and less worldly. The food—that wonderful pubby food—is simply gone. While all that stings, it's the service that's really troubled. The staff had always been a bit curmudgeonly at Mahar's—that was part of its charm—but the good-natured admonishments slowly went from jokey, to annoyance, to gruff, and finally to downright mean. I don't need to be made to feel like it's privilege to frequent an establishment.

The result of this decline—that's been happening for the last seven or eight years—was pretty inevitable. Bad business decisions, over extension, shitty service, rambling accusatory emails, a caustic relationship with both the city and most of the distributors in upstate New York, and competition—major competition—finally caught with Mahar's. Too many bridges were burned and the building was bought out—from right below them. Unfortunately, the end of this Albany institution couldn't have been better predicted by Nostradamus, himself. As proverbial as it is—Mahar's reaped what it sowed. Am I sad to see to end like this? Sure—but I'm not surprised. Although, it's not quite dead yet. There is still a satellite operation across the river in Castleton-on-Hudson (which I quite like) and there has been speak of new location in Albany—but, that remains to be seen.

All that being said, I will raise my glass to what Mahar's was—and quite honestly, what shall never be again.