The Dogfish Dash at 10: An Appreciation

Dogfish Dash ephemera September for the beer nerd may herald the welcome return of fresh festbiers and pumpkin beers (presuming you weren’t already tripping over them in the shops in July or August), but for me, it just means one thing: it’s Dogfish Dash time.

Now in its tenth year, the event has grown from a casual, friendly run around a portion of the Junction-Breakwater trail and a stop in Dogfish Head’s Rehoboth Beach brewpub afterward, to quite a competitive event beginning and ending at the brewery in Milton – and the competition starts with simply scoring a bib. I ran my first Dogfish Dash in its second year, and will be back this time for my eighth; I had to break my nearly-perfect streak last year as I was Far Too Pregnant to run. Despite missing a year, I seem to have amassed a larger-than-expected collection of Dogfish Dash ephemera: not just t-shirts and race bibs, but semi-forgotten unredeemed coupons, water bottles and the odd blog post (or two, or three).

My favorite is still the Dogfish + feet = love shirtIt seems strange to think now that it was possible to fit most of the runners and their friends and family into the brewpub, with (relatively) minimal waits for beer, but as the Dogfish Dash has grown, the art of getting an ever-increasing number of runners to their beers has evolved and improved over time. Yes, some years had very long lines, but that’s simply incentive to try to finish in good time, and it’s clear that lessons are learned and applied to line management the following year. The other advantage of staging the race in Milton is the opportunity to tour the brewery; it seems there’s an entirely new portion each time, and the organization of the mini-tours has been top-notch. My now-10 year old looks forward to the race every year just for the tour; while he’s probably toured more breweries around the world than most adults, Dogfish Head is the one he sees annually, so he enjoys noting the changes (and donning the safety goggles). The staff members do an amazing job of moving large groups of people safely through the brewery, and the volunteers keep the beer flowing outside with plenty of enthusiasm. It’s also great to see the returning runners, both before and after the race: there are regular groups of costumed teams who seem to have better beer-related themes each time out.

I’ve developed my own strategies around registration and packet pickup over the years – though it’s worth noting that while it seems it was ever thus, there was no great rush to sign up for the first few years; you could take your time and see how you felt a few weeks out. It’s true you do need to schedule yourself to register and collect your bib and other goodies, but given the popularity of the race, it’s to be expected. That said, it’s quite reasonable to cap the number of runners, even with a race for charity; anyone who has ever run in a huge event like the Broad Street Run or one of the many Rock & Roll half-marathons knows that a huge wall of people in front of you, fast or slow, isn’t the most inspiring running experience. And given that the race goes through Milton, which no one would accuse of being a large town (though it is a town of considerable architectural interest), there’s only so much room on the course. And I hear rumors that the backlog at the bridge – a familiar, if minor, issue for anyone who has run this race in the past – won’t be an issue this year with the change in distance and route.

First time! pre-dogfish Growth!

That brings us to another point; when those changes were first announced, there was the expected grumbling on Twitter about the loss of the 10K, while others lamented the lack of a 5K – it was too short for some, while too long for others who had hoped to make it their first race. For both, I’ll offer my perspective: the Dogfish Dash is what made me become a ‘real’ runner, and it can do the same for you. Prior to my first Dogfish Dash, I was a novice runner who could barely manage a few yards without stopping, though I was a keen and seasoned beer drinker. But after that first race, it became an annual part of my calendar, and I began signing up for other, longer races, just to be ready to run a ‘good’ (by my standards) Dogfish Dash – anything that would make my wait in the beer line shorter. I began doing all sorts of other fitness-related things that would have shocked and horrified my teenage self, but it has always paid off – I’ve exceeded my 10K PR each year in the Dogfish Dash, and I can’t avoid setting a PR (personal record, for all you couldn’t-care-less-about-weird-runner-jargon folk) for this new, ‘off-centered’ distance. And while I’m still not back to my pre-this-baby speed, and I realize that calling what I do ‘speedy’ would inspire laughter with certain stripes of runners who take things a bit too seriously, my prep races have convinced me it’s returning. So whether it’s a stretch for someone who is just starting out as a runner (welcome – there’s beer at the end!) or a shorter race that a distance runner can use to push their pace, it’s good, well-organized fun for all.

So, if there’s a moral to the story, it’s that beer is good for you, and makes you a fitter, faster runner. I’m living proof.

See you there!

The Craft Beer Cycle, Bookended by HMHB and Gilbert & Sullivan

Craft Beer CycleI’ve been to a post-punk postcard fair, in my Joy Division oven gloves
Half Man Half Biscuit, 2005

Throughout college and grad school, it seemed everything was post-something. As a student of archaeology, that meant for me, largely post-structuralist, post-feminist, post-processural and the like; fast-forward 20 years, and Jeff Pickthall muses about whether he might be ‘post-craft’ when it comes to beer. It’s a perspective I’ve been wondering about of late, albeit without a clever title – while the explosion of an amazing array of breweries and styles has largely been a positive thing, there is more than a whiff of Shiny Object Syndrome in the beer world. While previously it seemed every brewery had a double IPA (or something else pushing the ABV and IBU envelopes), the current trend for ‘weird’ beers can be a bit wearying, and I say that as someone who loves them.

First, though, let’s put some boundaries around what ‘weird’ is for the purposes of this discussion. Some of it is reviving (or simply re-discovering) historical and regional styles like Kentucky Common or Gose (now NEW YORK TIMES APPROVED), and that’s great, though I’d love to see more done with the rigor employed by Ron Pattinson’s work with primary sources – there’s clearly a lot of room for variety in those historical styles, often much more than one would assume, and it’s fabulous to see (drink) the results of that kind of work. But there’s also a tendency to ‘modernize’ them – making a 12% barrel-aged Berliner Weisse comes to mind – in ways that aren’t just historically inaccurate, but simply don’t appeal to anyone beyond a particular kind of fanboy/girl who may simply be in it for the bragging rights. It’s perfectly fine to make things that aren’t for everyone, but if it’s something even that narrow audience professes to enjoy simply because they feel they ought to, there’s something missing.

There’s another branch of ‘weird’ that uses unexpected ingredients, and that can work extremely well, but that doesn’t mean that it will. It could be a huge failure. Or, perhaps even worse by some standards, it could just be thoroughly mediocre. And it’s fair to say that a wider acceptance of ‘weird’ also leads to more room for error – maybe that infected beer that cost a lot to make is just a new kind of ‘sour’ (which now seems to cover a very wide stylistic range indeed), and it can be repackaged or rebranded as such. That’s where things start getting sloppy, and over time, people notice.

That’s not to say there aren’t breweries doing weird beers extremely well; I’m very fortunate to live a short walk from Tired Hands Brewing Company, and they have yet to turn out a dud, but their smaller-batch model is perfectly designed for that sort of experimentation by highly-skilled brewers.  And Tired Hands has also made great milds, a fabulous bitter, wonderful IPAs – it’s just that for them, those are the rarities. And because the quality and consistency is there, it works. Mikkeller has a similar, if somewhat more scattershot approach, likely a necessity given their peripatetic brewing model, but I did find it very interesting that their pub in Copenhagen had a great mix of traditional styles, both their own beers and those of their friends and neighbors, as well as the more outlandish beers they tend to sell abroad. Given that ‘weird’ seems to sell, it’s a smart approach – keep a hand in with high-quality basics, but send the ‘extreme’ things to the markets that crave them (though I’d personally love to have some of their beers that I tried in Denmark in the US – do I get any pull as a member of the Mikkeller Running Club? No? That’s OK). There are other breweries I’ll not name that desperately want to be ‘weird’ and to that end, only brew beers with, say, vegan bacon as a key ingredient, but they don’t seem to have mastered the basics.  Those are the breweries that look uncannily like those that didn’t survive The Great Microbrew Bubble in the 1990s.

There are certainly times when I really want to try the Shiny New Thing – but equally, there are times when I wish I could find more great, well-brewed ‘normal’ beers – especially with a lower ABV (hey, I’m only small, and having one child who is under a year old means I’m a long way off from having any alcohol tolerance back). But instead of ‘session IPAs’ – the best I’ve had have been perfectly well-crafted and re-branded pale ales, with the worst tasting rather like hop tea – can we not enjoy a range of other styles? I have been thrilled to discover Conshohocken Brewing Company’s Puddlers Row Bitter; it’s perfectly done, and a great go-to beer.

But in the current environment, I’m sometimes told the ‘normal’ beers aren’t selling; I was pleased to discover my local beer shop had begun to stock some Hobson’s beers, but then crestfallen to hear they were selling them all cheaply because ‘they didn’t move.’ There can be any number of reasons for this, but given that I was actively keeping an eye out for those beers and didn’t know they were there, I can only imagine how hard it would be for someone who hadn’t heard of the brand to discover them. A small brewery that happens to make great beers isn’t memeworthy; after all, many beer snobs don’t want to drink ‘tired’ styles they associate with the Newcastle Brown they thought was pretty fantastic as underage drinkers.  There’s no push within most of the craft beer-centric media (at least in the US) to talk about great ‘ordinary’ beers – novelty is what gets press.

These things are cyclical, but they have a real impact on what’s available, and I suspect there is an audience that simply isn’t catered to: they don’t feel the need to identify as a ‘craft beer person,’ but they’d like to try something new that isn’t too far from their comfort zone. On the other side of that coin, there are more and more craft beer nerds who know the value of a great ‘normal’ beer and wish there were more of them about.

So perhaps it’s not that I’m post-craft, but that I’m at a different phase in my personal craft beer cycle, which seems to run a bit like the image above. There are a few sub-processes and tangential directions left off, ranging from ‘I don’t drink contract-brewed beer’ to ‘I only drink beers for which I need to buy tickets and/or stand in line for hours’ on one side of the circle, with the other turning toward ‘I drink anything that’s free at a tailgate.’ It’s OK to have gone around the cycle a few times. It’s OK to go back and forth on different points on the cycle, or to decide you’re quite happy in one particular phase.

It’s a fabulous thing that I can walk a few blocks to have a great beer whenever the mood strikes me (provided I’m not at work, too tired, that both the big kid – who is something of a brewery tour snob – and the baby are both fed and watered, or that cats aren’t sitting on me). I’m thrilled that I can always find something unexpected and well-made, but sometimes I’d just like (the equivalent of) a pint of Theakston’s Best.

Perhaps the pendulum will soon swing the other way; with the hipsterization of brands like Narragansett as the ‘new PBR,’ we may soon see traditional brewing styles and breweries positioned as edgy retro options (and priced accordingly). Given the (often rather inward-looking) media noise and sales trends, I’m reminded that we’ve been here before – a long time before:

When every blessed thing you hold
Is made of silver, or of gold,
You long for simple pewter.
When you have nothing else to wear
But cloth of gold and satins rare,
For cloth of gold you cease to care
Up goes the price of shoddy.

– Gilbert & Sullivan, The Gondoliers, 1889

Up-and-coming Beer Destinations: Copenhagen

Mikkeller & Friends, Copenhagen, DenmarkThis month’s Session – or, Beer Blogging Friday – asks us to identify those under-the-radar locations that are about to become the next big thing on the beer scene. This presents an ideal opportunity to finally blog about our trip to Copenhagen in 2013; yes, this blog post is nearly two years late, but better late than never, and a wider audience should be aware of the wonders of the Danish capital’s beer scene, both old and new.

When considering Copenhagen, most beer nerds immediately think of Mikkeller, and with good reason – Mikkel Borg Bjergsø’s steady march to beer omnipresence, with bars and tasting rooms from San Francisco to Bangkok, and a global distribution network that some brewers with a permanent facility can only image, has been remarkable.  And their original Copenhagen locations do not disappoint: especially at Mikkeller & Friends, in the Nørrebro neighborhood, you’ll find a warm welcome, and an ever-changing lineup for 40 taps. I would love to see more American breweries follow their ‘and Friends’ approach, which they take very seriously, highlighting not only Mikkeller beers, but also those of like-minded breweries from near and far. When we visited, we enjoyed having the opportunity to sample the wares of To Øl, Herslev Bryghus and Bryggeriet Refsvindinge, among others. And, this being Denmark, having a well-behaved child in tow was not frowned upon; quite the contrary. The bottle shop attached to the bar had an enormous crate of Westvleteren XII sitting in the corner – as you do – and a very interesting selection beyond that. Nørrebro is also home to Nørrebro Bryghus, whose beers are available across Copenhagen, from restaurants to tourist attractions. It was an especially welcome discovery at the National Aquarium of Denmark, Den Blå Planet: you can enjoy a beer or two while taking in the view of the Øresund. Amager Bryghus beers are also widely available around the city, and Brewpub København was worth a quick visit.

No list of Copenhagen tourist attractions would be complete without a mention of Tivoli Gardens, which we found a most pleasant surprise. Having previously only visited rather uninspiring to downright filthy theme parks in the US and UK, I admit I didn’t expect much, but it was in every way delightful – and it has its own small brewery, Bryggeriet Apollo, in the park. While the beer in general is nothing earth-shattering, nor did it have any reason to be, it was certainly well-crafted and offered at a not-unreasonable price, given the surroundings (and the fact that food and drink in Denmark is quite expensive, compared to other major European countries). Modern amusement parks could learn a lot from their 19th century forebear – good food and drink, lovely gardens, fun rides without long lines, and Tycho Brahe as a mascot, rather than cartoon characters – all well worth the price of admission.

Returning to bottle shops, Ølbutikken is a can’t-miss stop; Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø and his staff have a well-curated collection of beers from around the world, though obviously with an emphasis on the owner’s Evil Twin Brewing.  And for those wondering whether the purported feud between the rival gypsy-brewer twins is A Real Thing, I can only offer this: Mikkeller & Friends had a number of interesting Evil Twin beers on tap, and Ølbutikken carried a good variety of Mikkeller beers. A little public friction is no doubt good for business, or it may be that Danish practicality overrides any present animosity; one presumes the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Carlsberg BreweryBut brewing in Copenhagen isn’t just about gypsy brewers and tiny breweries – there’s a good case to be made for saying that this is where modern industrial brewing was born, and that isn’t necessarily a Bad Thing. Emil Hansen first began to culture yeast for Carlsberg in the 1880s, laying the groundwork for brewing as we know it today. And the Carlsberg tour is absolutely a highlight for anyone interested in brewing history, and in considering how huge, multinational brewers can still make ‘good beer.’ Again, children are made to feel very welcome – the tour starts in the stables (or in the shop, depending on your point of view), and petting the Jutland horses, who have been carrying Carlsberg beer for more than 165 years, is encouraged. From there, it’s a whistle-stop tour though the old brewhouse, complete with beautiful tilework and copper kettles galore, to the famous Carlsberg Elephant Gates (with their 1901 swastikas fully explained, for the benefit of any children, or adults who might have missed some art history lessons) and sculpture gardens. And the tour concludes with a mix of old and new, in the Jacobsen Brewhouse, named for J.C. Jacobsen, the founder of Carlsberg. Since 2005, Carlberg has been brewing a range of high-quality beers under the Jacobsen label, and mixing and matching Carlsberg and Jacobsen beers in your post-tour samples is encouraged. There’s no ‘craft vs crafty’ issue here – Jacobsen is very clearly part of the Carlsberg family, and a well-respected one at that – it’s just a great example of how a large brewer can respond to market demand for more flavorful, complex beers, all while keeping their flagship brands in the public consciousness.

There is, of course, much to do in Denmark beyond beer – visiting the Gundestrup Cauldron at the National Museum of Denmark was the achievement of a major life goal for me (this comes of having too many archaeology degrees), and the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde is also a must-see (though it is worth noting that both sites have some of the above-mentioned beers available in their shops and cafes). There are ample opportunities to visit a number of bog bodies across the country, and if you’re traveling with children, your itinerary will almost certainly include a visit to Legoland – which, like Tivoli, albeit with much more plastic, is surprisingly diverting for adults as well.

But if you seek a great beer destination that hasn’t quite been discovered by the hipster masses, head to Copenhagen; its mix of young, independent breweries and historic heft is hard to beat.

On Sondheim, and ‘Big’ Craft Beer

unicornsThe swirl of discussion generated by the recent Boston Magazine article suggesting that Sam Adams and its creator, Jim Koch, have been bypassed by a burgeoning movement within the beer world has been interesting to observe.  While there has been more than an element of hipster-bashing (not always unwarranted, but certainly overstated), I’m firmly on the side of Pete Brown in finding the snobbery distasteful. But while it was ever thus – more on that in a moment – we’ve reached something of a tipping point, in that the sheer number of people on the looking for ‘good’ beer is finally making a real impact in the market.

First, though, let’s rewind.

Back in the 1970s, Coors (yes, Coors) was the beer that American beer snobs wanted desperately. Unpasteurized, it was only available in the West, and its relative scarcity made it a hot commodity. Washington, DC’s Brickskeller (now reborn as The Bier Baron) first began to make waves as a ‘beer bar’ by serving Coors when it was still largely unavailable east of Oklahoma. But its rapid rise to ubiquity – not to mention its similarity to the other light lagers on the market – meant that it quickly lost its shiny unicorn status. While I would argue that Boston Lager, the Sam Adams flagship, is still a perfectly fine beer, it has likewise lost its own shiny unicorn status as the market has changed and evolved – but it won’t be the last.

As the number of breweries has grown, and choice of beer styles has greatly expanded – again, both very good things – an irksome mirror of snobbery that has developed alongside those trends. As a former resident of the Silicon Valley town, I can recall attending the Mountain View Smaller Brewers’ Festival from the late 1990s up through about 2001, and it was not at all difficult to find those attitudes. A casual visitor to the festival  favorably compared a (nameless for our purposes) tiny brewery’s very pleasant pale ale to the local ‘big’ craft beer, Sierra Nevada, only to be smirked at and informed that they were entirely wrong to find any similarities between the two – one was made by a large brewery, and therefore simply Not Interesting, while the other was lovingly handcrafted (in this case, by someone just beyond the homebrewing stage – having sampled their other beer on offer, I can attest that they hadn’t quite nailed sanitizing everything), and therefore, Better.  Several Comic Book Guy lookalikes (remember, this was Silicon Valley pre-dot-com crash) tittered their agreement with the brewer.  You’d see a similar scene replicated throughout the tent, and the same thing is happening across the industry, at least in the social media echo chamber. Now, at least to a certain stripe of drinker, lagers are boring, pale ales are boring, and soon enough, IPAs will also be boring, just because everyone makes one (or, at this point, a double IPA).

Consumer demand for novelty has not been a bad thing; there are a lot of fantastic brewers who are able to push the envelope and deliver consistently wonderful, weird beers; I’m lucky to live a short walk from one of them. But it’s not a model that can be easily replicated, especially on a production scale, and when ‘everyone’ tries to do it, but delivers a product that simply isn’t as good, it drives away potential new ‘converts’ – let’s recall that while ‘our’ numbers are growing, they are still a fraction of the whole.

But the pursuit of novelty often overlooks the achievements of great brewers of ‘normal’ beers, and that’s what I find annoying – I’d love to have more great lagers, especially like Urban Chestnut’s Zwickelbier, or another really excellent English-style stout like Good English, recently enjoyed at the Barren Hill Tavern. Yes, I want more ‘weird stuff’ – but I don’t want ‘normal’ beers to become so rarely-brewed that they become the shiny unicorns in turn.

And if you’re still wondering what this has to do with Sondheim, worry no more. Uncle Stephen solved all of craft beer’s infighting problems back in 1987, when Into the Woods premiered on Broadway. He wrote that:

Witches can be right, Giants can be good. You decide what’s right. You decide what’s good.

If you haven’t seen the film yet, you should go do that – but the point stands. There are huge brewers making good beer – Carlsberg is doing really fun things with their Jacobsen line, and if you’re ever in Copenhagen, you should certainly take their tour; it’s a great beer history lesson, their horses are just as personable as the Clydesdales, and you can try some really good beers at the end, even if their namesake lager isn’t one you’d reach for. There are small brewers I won’t name (we already know the big ones) making some truly appalling beers. There are a lot of big and small brewers making mediocre beers. But the fact that we now have ‘Big Craft’ and can complain about it is a wonderful thing – it means we have a goodly number of small, medium and (relatively) large brewers making excellent beer.  It’s driving the even bigger ones to innovate and improve the scope of their offerings. You can get decent beer on many airlines now. It means even your local dive bar will usually have a reasonable IPA on tap, even if you’ve ‘moved on’ (See? More Sondheim!) from IPAs – just hang in there, you may come back to them.

Market maturity, even if recently powered by what seems to be a puerile search for a malted barley cryptoid (I should probably trademark Ittan-momen White Sake-aged Imperial Smoked Gose before someone else does), is exciting. If your favorite local brewery one day joins the ranks of Big Craft Beer, enjoy it.  If you saw REM play for 30 people in a bar before they got a lot of airplay, you can trot that story out now, but you had less fun if you began ignoring them after Green, simply because everyone else had joined the party. Yes, there were some terrible also-rans when indie went mainstream, but it also meant your favorite formerly-obscure band could afford to tour more often, and produce more records.  Success doesn’t have to be inauthentic, nor do corporate trappings negate quality. Like what you like.

Best Beers of 2013

Mikkeller & Friends, Copenhagen, DenmarkThere’s a little bit of everything this year – lots of local beer, and for many of the non-local ones, I got to enjoy them reasonably close to their sources, both at home and abroad. In roughly chronological order, please enjoy this year’s top 10:

Mrs. Pigman, Tired Hands Brewing Company, Imperial / Double IPA, 11.5%

I suppose the narrative is less ‘I don’t like double IPAs’ and more ‘I don’t like not-very-good double IPAs’ – and too many breweries seem to think it’s a style at which they will be especially successful. Whether it is down to dark powers or sheer hard work, Jean Broillet IV and the team at Tired Hands are consistently good at absolutely everything. It was hard to choose just a few favorites from their ever-changing lineup; among their 2013 beers I’ve particularly enjoyed are their Caskette and LiverPool, both milds, We Are 138, a Cascadian Dark Ale, and Dr. Grasshopper, a Berliner Weisse. And although I maintain that double IPAs rarely meet expectations, this one exceeded everything. Sure, Russian River’s Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger are good, but they aren’t this good. Really.

Ancient Knovvledge, Tired Hands Brewing Company, Saison, 6.2%
Yes, it’s another from Tired Hands – and yes, I realize I am extremely fortunate to be able to walk there whenever the mood takes me. In some ways, this is a ‘typical’ Tired Hands beer – a saison with something a little bit different. In this instance, the Szechuan peppercorns were what made this one stand out, adding a nice kick and the odd bit of a good sort of numbness. We won an AHA medal for homebrewing a mead with Szechuan peppercorns some years back, but we didn’t approach this level of expertise. It’s all good.

Courage Russian Imperial Stout, Wells & Young’s Brewing Company, Russian Imperial Stout, 10%
As mentioned above, a general rule, I don’t love most ‘imperial’ beers – so many brewers seem to be caught up in an ABV arms race, so it’s nice to dial it back to a real historical example. Wells & Young’s events during Philly Beer Week have become must-attend annual outings for me – there’s always someone personable from the brewery, and you get a nice history lesson with your beer. I enjoyed getting to compare both the cask and bottled versions of this beer, though I’d give the edge to the bottled one, which likely had a little more time to mellow. But it’s a small quibble – both were very tasty indeed.

Reparationsbajer, To Øl, American Pale Ale, 5.8%
As much as I enjoyed everything I had at Mikkeller & Friends in Copenhagen – especially for the opportunity to try Mikkeller’s less high-octane beers, I have to admit a slight edge to a few beers from brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergsø’s former students who went on to found To Øl. Brewers Tobias Emil Jensen and Tore Gynther describe this beer as a ‘morning after’ affair, but I found it just as pleasant as a curtain-raiser to the evening. It was also a fine illustration that just because you can make excellent ‘unusual’ beers, you can show off your skills with a very straightforward recipe as well.

Black Ball, To Øl, Porter, 8%
Another entry from To Øl – I am always happy to find a hoppy porter. One of my local seasonal favorites is Tröegs Dead Reckoning Porter, and this was almost like an amped-up version, though it never went overboard; it was really rather delightful. In fairness, we had excellent (if pricey) beer all over Denmark – more large-scale breweries could take a leaf from Carlsberg’s page and invest in their own in-house (apologies for the loaded term coming up) ‘craft’ lines, as everything we tried from their Jacobsen line was excellent, as was their brewery tour. Big doesn’t have to mean bad, just as small isn’t necessarily good, but they seem to be doing both right there.

Mikkeller Yeast Series 2.0 English Ale, Mikkeller, English Pale Ale, 6.4%
But fear not – Mikkeller did make the list. The frankly amazing taplist at Mikkeller & Friends included a very wide range of beers, both Mikkel-brewed and literally those brewed by his friends, and I loved the variety on display. We tend to get the higher-ABV end of the Mikkeller spectrum in the US, and it was wonderful to see how much more there was on offer. I love a good English Pale Ale, and this fit the bill perfectly. Yes, Mikkeller can make wonderfully weird beers, but that’s only one part of the story.

Freigeist Ehrenfelder Alt, Freigeist Bierkultur, Gasthaus-Brauerei Braustelle, Altbier, 4.8%

I do love a good altbier, and I especially appreciate what Peter Esser and Sebastian Sauer are doing with Freigeist Bierkultur, the small experimental line from already-tiny Braustelle Brewery in Cologne. Their goal of reviving old and often peculiar (to modern tastes) German beers is one I wholeheartedly endorse. It can be difficult to avoid something of a hipster label when enjoying these occasionally difficult-to-find and sometimes strange beers, but they are well worth the effort to seek out.

Sauer Porter, Freigeist Bierkultur, Gasthaus-Brauerei Braustelle, Sour Porter, 6%
Yes, it’s another double entry. In this case, ‘Sauer’ refers to brewer Sebastian Sauer of Freigeist Bierkultur, as well as for the beer’s lactic sourness. This beer has a lot going on – it’s dark and chewy, but also salty – like a gose, a style I am quite happy is having a renaissance, but also refreshingly sour, so it’s something akin to a heavier, dark Berliner Weisse. This is all wrapped up in a ‘porter,’ though those who adhere strictly to (modern) style conventions might wish they had a different category in which to place this beer. Despite the current popularity of the very broad range of sour beers on the market, I often avoid this trend as they are rarely to my taste – and this is not to take a contrarian position, but simply because I don’t like more than a tiny smidgen of Brettanomyces (you can blame me for not being a wine drinker). However, I do like the lactic end of the sour spectrum, and this sits perfectly in that spot.

Edel Helles, Barren Hill Tavern & Brewery, Helles Lager, 4.8%
After quite a saga, the General Lafayette Inn regenerated into the Barren Hill Tavern and Brewery, with Scott Morrison’s beers taking pride of place. Everything has been outstanding so far – the West Coast Oats and Burton IPA are particular stand-outs thus far – but I had to give the nod to the Edel Helles. Being able to drink the beer just feet from where it was brewed is especially useful for a beer in this style; sometimes even the best ones from Germany don’t necessarily travel well. This one is perfect.

Rosey Nosey, Batemans, Winter Ale, 4.7%
I have been a big fan of Batemans for many years, dating back to when I lived in the UK; indeed, I’ve often fantasized about being able to move to Lincolnshire, where I could easily enjoy their freshest local beers. Should I get transferred, I’d most likely end up near London again, but I would make it a priority to finally investigate their brewery tour at some point. Though rarely ‘weird’ or flashy, they always have a solid lineup, and I hope that more of their beers make their way to the US in future. I love this because it’s chewy and seems full-bodied, but without the 7%+ wallop it might have had it been brewed in the US. Lovely.

So, there you have 2013 – happy new year!

Book Review: D.G. Yuengling & Son, Inc.

D.G. Yuengling & Sons, Inc.The good people at Arcadia Publishing sent me a copy of one of the newest additions to their Images of America series, and a very interesting one it is indeed. D.G. Yuengling & Son, Inc., by Robert A. Musson, MD, covers the family brewery from its 1829 origin as the Eagle Brewery to its current status as America’s oldest operating brewery. What is perhaps most encouraging to see is the sheer number of photographs and prints the slim volume packs in; it suggests that the company archives are in a healthy state of organization. And, like any good introductory history, it raises more questions than it answers; I came away from the book wanting to know more.

While I was familiar with the general outline of Yuengling’s story – German immigrants, initial success, creative Prohibition work-arounds, post-war decline and re-invigoration – there were a number of surprises. I had never been aware of how far afield Yuengling’s reach was in the 19th century, and the snippets about David Yuengling, Jr., opening breweries in Virginia and New York was intriguging indeed. I was previously quite unaware that Harlem once boasted its own Yuengling Brewery, much less one turning out more than 30,000 barrels of just one beer – Champagne Ale – annually. Equally unknown to me was the family’s purchase of a further brewery in Harlem with an even greater capacity that was used solely for lager, and the brief notes about these plants serve to highlight the shift in the nation’s taste from ale to lager. Both buildings were sold by the tail end of the 19th century, but it’s a very interesting illustration of Yuengling’s expansion and quite purposeful contraction at that point.

Also of note was a caption about Minna Dohrman Yuengling, wife to Frederick and mother to Frank; there was a passing mention that she essentially co-managed the brewery with Frank after Frederick’s death in 1899, but I would love to know more about her and her role in the business. Even the more detailed Yuengling: A History of America’s Oldest Brewery, by Mark A. Noon, doesn’t give much more away – it sounds as thought there may be some rather juicy meeting minutes locked away somewhere. The late 19th and early 20th centuries seem an especially busy period in Yuengling’s history; I was somewhat surprised to see a poster from c. 1900 (page 33, for those reading along) that included the tag ‘America’s Oldest Brewery’ – it was particularly interesting as the text indicates that it wasn’t widely used in signage until the 1950s (p. 67), though it’s possible the earlier poster had a very different audience.

There are many other hints and clues scattered throughout the book that suggest there is much more to discover; my only complaint is that all the photos and prints are black and white (as is standard for the Images of America series); particularly for the early advertising, it would be nice to see some in full color.

But all told, it’s a pleasant introduction to Yuengling, and a useful reminder that change is a constant in the beer industry. If you’re still at a loose end for a holiday or new year present, why not pick up a copy?

Barren Hill Tavern – Opening Tap List

Finally, it's back!While in general I like to avoid just putting up the press release, time and the occasion sometimes warrant it.  It’s been a long time coming, but it’s finally time for Barren Hill Tavern and Brewery to open its doors to the public. The former General Lafayette Inn lives again at last, and with a little luck, the ghosts are still hanging around as well.  Here’s what’s on tap, and both the house-brewed beers and guests sound fantastic – here’s the list directly from the horse’s mouth:

Barren Hill Beers for Opening Night –

Belgian Golden – Inspired by Duvel, the classic Belgian Golden. A beer that is well balanced as the hops, malt & the spicy yeast show themselves with each sip. Belgian Pilsner Malt & Slovak Stryian Golding hops7.2% ABV Medium Hop Bitterness.
16oz -Chalice or Pint $5.5 growler 64oz $18

Biere De Octobre – A French Country Biere de Garde, typically produced in Nord & Pas de Calais. A malty, earthy beer that is dominated by the malt sweetness up front, but dry in the finish. French Malt, French Strisselpalt & Aramis hops. Basically our take on an October fest – Biere de Guarde brewed with lager yeast.
6.75% ABV Low Hop bitterness 16oz pint $5 growler 64oz $15

German Pale Ale (pre prohibition) – An American Pale ale style with German hops. What we’d imagine the German brewers in Philadelphia were producing in the late 1800s. Smooth hoppiness, as we used Hallertau, Opal, & Brewer’s Gold hops from Germany. For a twist, we aged the beer on American Cherry.
4.8% ABV Medium Hop Bitterness 16oz Pint $5 growler $15

Pilsner IPA – a hybrid style also known as an Imperial Pilsner. We made a traditional German Pilsner, with a bit more malt & a generous amount of hops. We used German Pearle & Hersburker hops. Instead of being intensely bitter, we added a ton of hops towards the end of the boil for flavor. Then we added a pound per barrel of Hersbucker hops for aroma.
6.4% ABV Medium Hop Bitterness 16oz Pint $5 Growler $15

Belgian IPA Single Hop Series – Galaxy – a true hybrid – Belgian Yeast, Australian hops & American Barley. There is a lot going on in the glass, as you have the spicy Belgian yeast & intense Galaxy hops fighting for attention. This is the first in a series of single hopped Belgian IPA’s. The Galaxy hops show a strong tropical fruit flavor of mango & passion fruit.
7.1% ABV High Hop Bitterness 16oz Pint $5.5 growler $18

Berliner Double Weisse – a rarely brewed style a few years ago, it’s now a favorite of many. A traditional sour, but refreshing German Wheat beer. Most Berliner beers are about 2.8 to 3.0% ABV, we decided to double it. Clean bright sourness & great wheat flavors.
5.8% ABV Low Hop Bitterness 16oz Pint $5 growler $15

Down Under Triple – Belgian Triple, Brewed exclusively with New Zealand Pacific jade hops, which bring out a citrus and black pepper flavor. Belgian Yeast brings a distinct Banana aroma. Deceivingly light bodied.
9.9% ABV Medium Hop Bitterness 10.5oz tulip $5 growler $18

Edel-Helles – A German Helles, a perilously drinkable beer for those who prefer something on the “lighter” side. Edel in German is defined as noble, and the hops are Noble Hersbrucker hops from Germany.
4.8ABV Low hop bitterness 16oz pint $5 growler $15

Burton IPA – Burton is famous for the water, and we’ve recreated the beer and the water. All English malts, and East Kent Golding hops. English IPA’s are not quite as hop forward as American IPA’s, as many would consider this a pale ale.
6.2 ABV Medium hop bitterness 16oz pint $5 growler $15

Baltic Porter – A Finnish Porter, that’s fermented with Lager yeast, instead of Ale. This fermentation gives the beer a remarkably smooth character, and is aged for 8 weeks. A bit stronger than most porters, some would call it an Imperial Porter.
8 ABV low/Medium Hop Bitterness 16oz Pint $5.5 growler $18

Black Rye Double IPA – A double IPA with a few twists, the rye malt brings a distinct spicy character, and the American Hops bring a bold citrus/ woodsy character.
9.2 ABV High Hop Bitterness 10.5oz tulip

Imperial Vanilla Stout – Perfect for the onset of the colder nights, we use 12 different malts to create a complex, strong malt forward beer. Real Vanilla beans used from Madagascar, Indonesia, and Mexico.
9.7 ABV low/Medium Hop Bitterness 10.5oz tulip $5 growler $18

Other Beers on Tap for Official Opening:
Julius Echter Hefeweisse – a Hefeweisse that is a cloudy golden color with notes of citrus, banana, cloves & bubblegum.
5.1% Germany 23oz $6.50 growler $18 Wheat glass

Wurzburger Premium Pilsner – Clear golden color, toasted grainy malt body with notes of citrus and subtle grassy hops crisp finish.
4.9% Germany 16oz $5.50 growler $18 Pint

Ommegang Witte – Belgian wheat with notes of tart lemon, orange, cloves & coriander with a crisp refreshing finish.
5.1% NY 16oz $5.50 growler $17 Pint

Ballast Point Sculpin IPA Limited – golden amber, with subtle malt sweetness, notes of light fruits, big juicy citrus hops, with pine hop finish.
7% CA tulip

Bruery Tart of Darkness – limited – stout aged in barrels with brett & wild yeast, roasted chocolate malt dark fruits with funky tart.
7% CA 10.5oz $9.5 6oz $5.5 Growler $50 -tulip or flight glass

Yards ESA – a English style ESB that is a dark amber color with a strong malt background to balance the pine hop bitterness. 6.3% Philly, PA 16oz $4.50 Growler $15 Pint

Freigeist Sauer Porter – a dark beer brewed with salt & brett – funky &tart with dark fruits, chocolate & salt – This was my favorite beer at the Alvinne beer festival in Belgium.
6% Germany Tulip

Unibroue Ephemere Cherry – limited – slightly cloudy amber color, notes of yeast, spice & tart cherries.
5.5% Canada 10.5oz $5.5 Growler 25 Tulip

Free Will Saison De Rose – seasonal collaboration brewed for the Rena Rowan Breast Center – a pink saison brewed with pink grapefruit, hibiscus, ginger & pink peppercorn.
5% PA 16oz $5 Growler $ 17 Pint Brewed with Free Will, Erin Wallace (bar owner), Tara Nurin (beer writer), Carolyn Smagalski (beer writer), Marnie Old (wine author)

Williamsburg AleWerks Pumpkin – seasonal – amber colored, creamy roasted pumpkin body notes of cinnamon, nutmeg & cloves.
8% VA

Suede Imperial Porter -limited collab with 10 Barrel, Bluejacket & Stone – Imperial Porter brewed with avocado honey, jasmine & calendula flowers 9.6% CA 10.5oz tulip

Allagash Confluence – limited – Belgian Pale ale brewed with brett & dry hopped, fruity malt body notes of funk, spice & citrus hops.
7% ME 10.5oz tulip

I’m really looking forward to my @untappd check-ins from @BarrenHillTav – got my weekend plans sorted!

Beer Events: Dogfish Dash 2013

and a taller boy!
2013: A bigger brewery every year
While I don’t necessarily improve my time year after year, the Dogfish Dash does, indeed, get better and better. Thinking back to my first (and the second overall) Dogfish Dash back in 2008, it’s worth marveling at how the race has evolved. Back then, it seemed there were only a few hundred runners, and one only had to decide to register a few weeks in advance. The route went from the brewpub in Rehoboth Beach onto a small part of the (excellent) Junction & Breakwater Trail (and I am forever grateful for that introduction to the trail, which I now run every time I go to the beach), then turned around and finished back at the bar. Getting a beer involved some judicious-but-friendly use of elbows to get to the bar, but at least packet pickup had been relatively easy.

In 2009, the race moved to Dogfish Head HQ in Milton, and the move to the brewery meant more runners, but also more room on race day. While the hillier course took some getting used to, having the support of Miltonians all along the route was a nice touch. There were a few kinks to be worked out – food and beer lines were long – but even with a fair amount of construction, the brewery tour was still good fun. 2010 was not dissimilar, although as the race grew in popularity, it seemed to get more crowded, with a bottleneck going over the otherwise-aesthetically-pleasing footbridge in Milton.

2011’s Dogfish Dash was much the same, although I was much faster and set a new PR for 10K; my belief is that the long beer lines the year before boosted my time, and although I did not have long to wait on that occasion, going back for a second beer seemed out of the question after that point. It seems that the brewery tour is vastly different every year – it seems to double in size every time we visit. I was very slow in 2012, but this year, I bounced back a bit; in fact I set a new PR, just beating my 2011 record (after finally realizing that I’m not as slow as I think, and that I need to start further forward in most races).

In days of yore: 2008 Dogfish Dash
In days of yore: 2008

But it wasn’t just my own time that had gotten better – once again, there was simply more brewery to enjoy, and the beer and food lines ran with Disneyesque efficiency. The slight alteration to the race route meant that that getting over the bridge was no problem, and that no doubt contributed to my better time. Rather than the anemic bagels and dodgy-looking bananas one often finds at the end of a race, this time there were great food options: quite tasty mix-your-own cereal, and much-appreciated breakfast burritos for runners. I would suggest that they paired perfectly with my Indian Brown Ale (or the Namaste I had later) – in any case, it was most welcome.

My only suggestion to improve the race going forward would be to create a separate division for walkers (not unlike the family-friendly 3K option offered as part of the Y12K), thereby freeing up more spaces for runners – given how quickly registration filled up this year (well under an hour), it might be one way to ease the pressure – and to still raise more money for The Nature Conservancy – but I don’t know if there would be space at the site or enough volunteers to go around to support a much larger event. That said, everything ran smoothly with larger numbers this year, so perhaps it’s worth considering.

All told, the Dogfish Dash continues to be my favorite race of the year – anyone want to send me to England to try the Adnams Southwold 10K for comparison?

The General Lafayette Inn to Barren Hill Tavern Transition is Official!

Barren Hill Tavern & BreweryIt was already good news to hear that the brains behind Devil’s Den and Old Eagle Tavern – owner Erin Wallace and her team – were aiming to revive the too-long-vacant General Lafayette Inn & Brewery.  But today, the reports got even better – not only is the ownership of the site done and dusted, but a head brewer has been announced: Scott ‘The Dude’ Morrison will take the reins at the Barren Hill Tavern & Brewery.

Philly-area beer nerds will recall Morrison’s excellent, fancy-award-winning, beers from McKenzie’s (where he was famously under-appreciated, to put the case mildly) and more recently at Dock Street, as well as various points beyond. In the new venture at Barren Hill, he’ll have six taplines dedicated to house-made beers to oversee; there will be thirty, all told. It’s worth putting in some quotes from the press release:

“I’m totally excited to be making new and interesting beer at Barren Hill. The collaboration with Erin [Wallace] and her team has been awesome so far. The beer will be fresh, allowing us to create new and interesting styles that aren’t readily available in the Philly market,” says [Scott] Morrison.

Morrison has gained much of his career accolades from his Belgian Ales, but the six lines at Barren Hill will be diverse and eclectic.

“Scott asked me what direction I wanted to take Barren Hill, and I gave him creative license. This project is exciting because of its endless possibilities,” Wallace says. “We’re looking forward to bringing contemporary cuisine and brewing styles to this historic and storied location.”

The house-made, rare, interesting beers will not only be available at Barren Hill Tavern, but will also be available at South Philadelphia’s Devil’s Den and Manayunk’s Old Eagle Tavern. Settlement was finalized today so the Barren Hill crew is getting started on minor renovations and recipe development. The brewpub is expected to open late Summer 2013.

So, there it is – we’ve got not only the renovation of a quirky historic building to look forward to (one that carries on the legacy of its original construction and an earlier name, no less), but an ever-changing lineup of great beer and, thanks to chef Paul Trowbridge, good food as well.  It may be the first time the old building will have been able to boast a consistent menu in both regards!

Hopefully the new Barren Hill Tavern will feature on something akin to the Craft Beer Express from time to time, since public transit to the area is not stellar, but a cleanup and better food will go a long way toward encouraging designated drivers.

Keep an eye out for an official opening date later this year – and go like them on Facebook!

Finally, Some General Lafayette Inn News

It would be nice to have the lights back onAt long last, there’s some official news about the General Lafayette Inn; it is to be reborn as the Barren Hill Tavern, under the able ownership of the crew behind Devil’s Den. There will be house-brewed beers again (huzzah!) and one hopes that it will once more become a regular host for beer-centric events – ideally with better food this time around.

While some may grumble at the name change, it’s a return to a previous moniker; it only gained the Lafayette-related title in 1946. Given that Lafayette himself knew the area as Barren Hill makes it even more appropriate, and surely there will be ample opportunity for self-appointed paranormal investigators to return to ask the Marquis himself his opinion of the bar. If only the streetcar that once ran from Philadelphia and stopped outside the bar could also be reinstated, alleviating the need for a designated driver, it would be ideal – but perhaps the guesthouse will be revived as well.

That small detail aside, there is plenty of scope for the new owners to create a real destination, as well as a great neighborhood spot. I’m happy to raise a glass to the new incarnation, and, of course, I’m available to consult on any confusing historical/archival/archaeological questions that may arise…

Previously in this wholly unintentional series —

February 7, 2011: The General Lafayette Inn: Resurrection Required
August 16, 2011: An Update: Want to Buy the General Lafayette Inn?
October 4, 2012: Got $1.25 Million for the General Lafayette Inn?