An Update: Want to Buy the General Lafayette Inn?

It would be nice to have the lights back onThe fate of the General Lafayette Inn seems to be of ongoing interest to beer drinkers and potential business owners far and wide – our previous post on the topic is constantly receiving heavy search traffic and many return visits.  And if you are one of those looking to re-open the bar, your chance has come at last.

After much legal wrangling, the General Lafayette Inn (and its outbuildings) are featured in a sheriff’s sale scheduled for August 31.  Sovereign Bank is aiming high – the amount they’d like to get is $1,081,376.98 (plus another number just north of $3500 in costs).  One presumes the high sticker price comes from loans they made to open the ill-fated Tied House in Philadelphia proper – it’s hard to imagine the Lafayette Hill location commanding that sort of value, even with the brewing equipment and liquor license – but it’s also possible that a much lower bid might be accepted on the day.  (A slight aside: there used to be a streetcar line from the city that stopped right in front of the General Lafayette – having decent public transit would make its location much, much more attractive – but alas, the prospective buyer will have to make do with the parking lot).

Two parcels make up the current property – the houses behind the main colonial building that were once used for bed & breakfast accommodation are separate from the restaurant and liquor license – it’s also possible that those could be divided, though given the layout, it’s difficult to see how that would be usefully accomplished without some fairly heavy redevelopment which could further detract from (or possibly destroy) the historic context (and, potentially, fabric) of the main building.  As discussed before, the site has great potential, but it needs some careful planning and thoughtful management.

Hopefully someone with a respect for history, knowledge of great beer and some business creativity will be at Courtroom A at the Montgomery Country Courthouse in Norristown by 1 pm on August 31st with a view toward taking on docket #201017050 – local beer fans (and, one might guess, the resident ghosts) will be grateful if the General Lafayette ends up in safe hands.

Update (August 31, 2011): The property was sold for costs – if you know the buyer, we’re all ears…

Update (October 5, 2012): Still on the market

Update (March 13, 2013): A new hope

…Said George Pal to his Bride

Beer! Racing! Together!Finally, two of my favorite activities are coming together, not unlike an existential Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup: a festival celebrating local beer is being held at the racetrack. The brains behind Philly Beer Week and TrackPackPA, the quite-entertaining people who have been working hard to raise the profile of Pennsylvania horse racing, are holding the first annual (so it is hoped) PA Craft Beer Fest at Parx (née Philadelphia Park) on September 10th.

In addition to beer from 20 Pennsylvania breweries, there will be local food galore (though, unlike many festivals, you are also welcome to BYO food) as well as music, a little volleyball and, of course, a prime spot along the rail. Given that racetrack food and drink is beyond appalling most of the time, this is a unique opportunity – it is a prime opportunity to enjoy a day at the track without starving (or overpaying for a suspicious hot dog).

If you’ve never played the ponies before, it’s entirely possible that sampling a few of the region’s finest beers could improve your odds. Of course, you are more than welcome to tap seasoned, and, occasionally, lucky, handicappers like this writer for advice; I’m always willing to hand out a live longshot if it involves a (good) drink. And don’t worry about being in unfamiliar surrounds at Parx – it may have been the home of  Smarty Jones (now plying his trade in Uruguay, at least for part of the year) it’s no Saratoga or Churchill Downs, so don’t look for ladies in hats or men in late-season seersucker suits (though you are more than welcome to develop a drinking game based on spotting them). Do expect to see people poring over their copies of the Daily Racing Form before heading to the windows to place bets, and feel free to ask for ideas on the finer points of pedigree analysis or to discover which jockeys are on hot streaks; racetrack people are friendly people.

What could be more fun (and appropriate) than cheering the horse you’ve backed home while enjoying something from Victory? And how many beer festivals give you the opportunity to win back your entrance fee?

It’s a day not to be missed.

Beer Events: Project Venus

Whitney Thompson represents!
Whitney Thompson represents!

While American Craft Beer Week may not get people as motivated around these parts as Philly Beer Week, Victory Brewing Company chose this week to host their first all-women event: Girls Just Wanna Have Suds, featuring the female-brewed collaboration beer, Project Venus.  At the appointed hour, the brewpub’s back room was quite full – there’s obviously demand for gatherings like this one, and the attendees are a largely punctual bunch.

Food and beer pairing stations were set up around the room; an endive and jicama appetizer went with Summer Love (in a slightly different formulation from last year’s offering), a goat cheese appetizer joined with Helios, pistachio-encrusted turkey (strangely, wonderfully compelling) was paired with Headwaters Pale Ale, and mussels played a supporting role to Project Venus, the star attraction. Only one keg of the featured beer made its way from Cambridge to Pennsylvania, but its origin there is worth mentioning. Devised by Megan Parisi of Cambridge Brewing Company, Laura Ulrich of Stone and Whitney Thompson of Victory, the beer marks the first female-driven collaboration brew at a commercial American brewery, although anyone who knows their beer history knows it marks more of a return to How Things Always Were.

The beer was brewed in Cambridge on their fifteen barrel system; it’s a dubbel, but quite unlike your typical Belgian offering. The recipe included blood oranges and saffron, and the resulting ruby-brown beer packs something of a wallop (though not, it must be said, a Hop Wallop) at around 9% ABV. My initial concern was that the beer might be quite sweet, given its base style and the addition of fruit, but the oranges impart a pleasant, slightly tart citrus flavour, while the overall taste remains a rounded maltiness. The finish is rather chocolately, though a relatively dry chocolate in my opinion – certainly not syrupy or overly sweet. Brewer Whitney Thompson described the finish as ‘like a Tootsie Roll’ and that was very apt.

The Project Venus concept is catching on worldwide; in the UK, Sara Barton of Brewster’s Brewery (one of my favo(u)rites) joined up with Sara Carter of Triple fff Brewery, Michelle Kelsall from Off Beat Brewery, Kathy Britton from Oldershaw Brewery and Gráinne Walsh of Metalman Brewing Company in Ireland to create Venus Jade, a hoppy but very sessionable ale. The group aims to create more beers together in the near future. In Canada, Claire Connolly of Big River Brewpub led a team of brewsters to create something a little Belgianesque, with some cherrywood-smoked malts, just in time for Vancouver Beer Week, and other projects are in the works elsewhere. With the Pink Boots Society bringing women in the industry together, it stands to reason that we’ll be seeing many more similar projects in the future.

As female drinkers of craft beer, we’re spoiled for choice in this region – In Pursuit of Ale and West Chester Beer Ladies offer local women a chance to get together to enjoy and learn more about great beer, while Seattle and Portland have recently welcomed Barley’s Angels chapters (Rogue has even ‘recognized‘ them as part of Rogue Nation) – indeed, there are groups as far afield as Buenos Aires and Sydney. Women Enjoying Beer, Girls Pint Out and Ladies of Craft Beer all offer camaraderie and learning opportunities for the distaff drinker.

It almost seems a bit unfair to the male beer drinker that he can’t always join it at some of these events, but I certainly won’t complain. We’re here, we’ve beer – get used to it!

Beer Destinations: The Farmer’s Cabinet

The Farmer's CabinetIt might seem a bit premature to anoint a venue that has been open only a few short weeks a must-visit for craft beer fans, but The Farmer’s Cabinet is simply that good – in fact, it’s really quite amazing, and not just for the beer.

The restaurant and bar is latest venture from the team behind Fork & Barrel and a number of highly-regarded other establishments beyond Philadelphia, and they’ve done it in a distinctive style.  The detailed interior might best be described as having a slightly steampunk, yet rustic, Weimar Republic theme (minus, of course, the smoking and proto-Nazis) – and this is a very Good Thing.  The sense of age is carried through with the lighting (low, but by no means too dark, with many  candles) and music (1920s and ’30s jazz, blues and more).  The staff are dressed in similarly ‘anywhen’ attire, and they are without question the most knowledgeable and well-trained bartenders one is likely to come across – it’s obvious that they are very familiar with even their more obscure products (more on those in a moment) and they are happy to offer small tasting glasses to the indecisive customer.

There are four distinct sections to The Farmer’s Cabinet; the beer bar is near the front, complete with piano, a more domestic cocktail bar, and two dining areas (though dining at the bar is certainly a handy way to ensure frequent refills).  The first dining room, containing long wooden communal tables would not be out of place in a traditional German bierhall, while the other offers more intimate seating toward the rear of the restaurant.  Another advantage of sitting at the bar is access to the delicious free popcorn: it’s both sweet and savoury, but quite unlike kettle corn.  In contrast to many other bars, The Farmer’s Cabinet doesn’t skimp on the water – there are handy carafes that are always kept full.

And so we arrive at the beer – and a more well-curated selection of smaller European breweries would be difficult to imagine.  This is perhaps best illustrated by this anecdote: I love Leipziger Gose – its salty goodness makes it one of my favorite beer styles, and its relative rarity means I typically jump at the chance to have some, especially on tap; the same goes for just about any Berliner Weisse, and there were classic examples of both available. But at The Farmer’s Cabinet, there were so many other intriguing options on offer that I never got around to my beloved German beers.   Instead, we sampled hard-to-find beers from Norway, Denmark, Austria, Italy and England (with two cask ales from Thornbridge) – and while ex-Bullfrog Brewery helmsman Terry Hawbaker will shortly be overseeing on-site nanobrewing operations, the United States was represented in the meantime by Ballast Point.  There is also a unique bottle list, but given the rotating tap list, it’s easy enough to overlook it.  One hopes that the balance currently maintained on the tap list will be maintained – there was a nice mix of lower- to medium-strength beers as well as a few higher-octane brews, which made it easy enough to try a number of different choices without a rapid progression to extreme tipsiness. Each beer on tap is offered in two sizes, which also helps make sampling simple.  The cocktail list is just as well-crafted as the beer menu, but I will leave that to mixed-drink experts to evaluate properly – it made very interesting reading.

The food is just as varied and fantastic – it encompasses everything from house-baked breads (including an outstanding sea salt/olive oil sourdough) to great meats and cheeses, to a variety of small plates, sandwiches and interesting entrees.  One imagines the desserts are equally tremendous, but clearly more strategy will be required to leave room next time. Even the more ‘pedestrian’ fare is worthy of close scrutiny: the burger was a house-blended mix of brisket and bacon.  Let me reiterate that point: the burger had ground bacon mixed into it – it was phenomenal. Everything is made with real ingredients; the farms the meat and produce came from are name-checked on the menu.

None of this comes cheap, but the blow of receiving the check is softened somewhat by its appearance in an old-fashioned cigar box, accompanied by a sea salt caramel.  It’s worth every penny, and The Farmer’s Cabinet deserves to become a true destination.

Handy Recent Craft Beer Writing Roundup

Actually, sometimes they doAnother new WeirdBeerGirl post  is coming shortly, but here’s a quick roundup of recent articles I’ve written elsewhere:

Serious Eats: Drinks
Old American Beer Styles, Lost and Found
Beer History: Craft Beer Survivors and Vanished Brands
Beer History: Swapping Homebrew Recipes with the Founding Fathers

And a few other articles from earlier in the year, for your clicking convenience:

Serious Eats Drinks
Ghosts of Beers Past: Reviving Historical Brews

A (Very) Brief History of Women in Beer

Ladies of Craft Beer
Wanted: A Samantha Brown of Craft Beer
Craft Beer & Kids: It Can Be Done!

All Hail Kegasus? Sure.

Kegasus may make Pimlico bearableFor those of you who don’t know I blog about horse racing, yes, I do that too – and for those of you who don’t know I blog about craft beer, see the previous answer. It’s about time a story brought the two together.

It would be hard to argue that Pimlico has much to recommend it beyond the Preakness; the physical plant is a mess, the food and drink options are terrible and much of the racing beyond the big day is uninspiring. The solution to getting people out to the track seems obvious: why not market a visit to Old Hilltop to people who are too drunk (or will be, soon after their arrival) to notice its failings? Enter Kegasus.

In all seriousness, seeing someone promote part of the Triple Crown with a view toward attracting a crowd that is neither elderly, tradition-bound nor independently wealthy is very refreshing indeed. Of course, for some, this is an annual tradition already; anyone suggesting that bacchanalia in the infield is novel has clearly never even watched the Preakness on television, much less witnessed the carnage in person. Let’s recall that Pimlico experimented with changing their alcohol policy in 2009 – and no one came. Giving Kegasus his head, as it were, allows for a good marketing push leading up to the big day (and ‘his’ social media efforts so far are quite encouraging). It’s true that many of the targeted audience aren’t there for the racing, but having a fun experience at the track makes them more likely to give it another try – they may even have a flutter on the Derby winner, just because it seems the thing to do. Diversity of audiences is a good thing, and it’s something racing desperately needs.

There is one issue still to be addressed, however – the appalling quality of the comestibles and the truly awful beer selection on offer at Pimlico. Granted, these choices are made long in advance and the options will be limited by the contracted caterers and beer distributors, but it would be nice to see the benighted track step up on its one big day a year. Why not get a special dispensation to offer some great local beers by Flying Dog, The Brewer’s Art or Heavy Seas? It’s true a keg of Raging Bitch might be a little too hard-core for some of the fratboy set more used to their Natty Bo, but there’s no reason not to offer some Old Scratch or Pale Ale. I’ve argued many times that racetracks need to step up across the board in this department – when you can get decent, even occasionally good, food and beer at most baseball, football and soccer stadiums, its absence from the track becomes ever more apparent (and distressing to those of us who might like to spend a day there without starving).

So I, for one, welcome our new centaur overlords – let’s hope they can work a little magic to get some real beer to the track in addition to the port-a-potty racers.

A Comparison: Pliny the Elder vs Pliny the Younger

Russian River Brewing CompanyBoth highly sought-after beers from California’s Russian River Brewing Company are a deep golden color, and are loaded with hops (and alcohol), to be sure – but the differences between the two are rather interesting. They do, however, both share one common characteristic: neither one really lets on quite how potent it is, especially when compared to other imperial IPAs.  But first, a little bit of background.  Pliny the Elder, clocking in at 8.0% ABV, is nearly always available, while Pliny the Younger (11.0 ABV) appears but once a year, in February (and in rather limited quantities – which, of course, makes it an Event Beer).

While many beer/history geeks are likely aware that Pliny the Elder (the human, not the beer) helped inspire the scientific name for hops (quite some time before expiring in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii, Herculaneum and the often-overlooked Oplontis and Stabiae), it’s very pleasing that Russian River gave a little nod to him – such details are easy to forget, although there’s no chance of forgetting about the hops in either of these beers.  The non-potable Pliny the Younger, namesake and nephew of the Elder, is perhaps best-known for writing about his uncle’s death – but he was a busy man beyond that, palling around with the likes of Tacitus and Suetonius, and traveling extensively. We’ll overlook the fact that both men probably considered beer something for unlettered barbarians – so, back to the beers.

Although it’s less potent, Pliny the Elder comes across as sweeter than the Younger; it’s something it shares with some of the better ‘special’ IPAs out there (e.g. Tröegs Nugget Nectar, Bell’s Hopslam), although it can certainly be said to have set the standard for them.  It has a distinctive malt backbone, with a lot of biscuity flavor – yes, it’s hoppy, but it’s so well-paired with the malts that they just work together beautifully.  Pliny the Younger (a triple IPA) is actually a little more subtle; it’s a much dryer flavor, and it hides its strength well; it almost comes across as something more in the 7%-8% ABV range.  This is especially pleasing when comparing it to other beers of this alcohol content, which can sometimes be overly sweet (beyond intentional sweetness, that is) – the hops are still very much leading the way, but even they seem almost a little toned-down next to the hops in Pliny the ElderPliny the Younger is a deliciously deceptive beer – and ‘subtle’ is the adjective I keep returning to – it’s got every excuse to be over the top, but it keeps it all (almost) under wraps – it’s got plenty of fabulous hop flavor and a refreshing bitterness, but those aspects are not overpowering. It’s a surprisingly different beer from Pliny the Elder – I admit I expected essentially a hoppier/stronger version of that one – but it stands very much on its own.

Both are great, unique beers that live up to the hype in different ways – and both are worth seeking out.

Recent Beer Writing Elsewhere

Beer brewing, Uruk, c. 3100 BCE

While I’ve got a few new reviews coming soon (including a comparison of Russian River’s Plinys Elder and Younger), I’ve been busy elsewhere – here are a few recent projects for other sites:

Serious Eats Drinks:
Ghosts of Beers Past: Reviving Historical Brews
A (Very) Brief History of Women in Beer

Ladies of Craft Beer:
Wanted: A Samantha Brown of Craft Beer and
Craft Beer & Kids: It Can Be Done!

More beer history and craft beer culture posts for other sites are coming in the future, but reviews and other general musings will continue here – come back soon!

The General Lafayette Inn: Resurrection Required

It would be nice to have the lights back on Update (August 16, 2011): The sheriff’s sale is scheduled.

As was reported last week, the General Lafayette Inn is still on the block — the original sale fell through, and it remains on the market for $1.8 million. While the location, although handy in the 18th century and through the streetcar era, leaves much to be desired now (at least as far as public transit options), the historic site has a great deal of largely unrealized potential. I would suggest that two potential avenues would be an ideal use of the space: first, it could become a satellite location or ‘testing’ brewpub for an established brewer; secondly, it could become a showplace (and temporary home) for a rotating cast of ‘gypsy’ brewers.

Option One – Brewpub Brand Extension

Given that the kitchen, brewery equipment and, given that this is Pennsylvania, the liquor license are already in place, so it should (in theory) be reasonably straightforward for an existing brewery to take over the space and get things up and running fairly quickly. Local brands like Victory, Triumph or Sly Fox would be an interesting fit – it’s a good distance away from all of their current locations, so it would not be taking away from their regular customer base. That’s not to say that there isn’t some work to be done before the staff could walk in and start brewing – the carpets need to be removed, other repairs are likely needed somewhere, given the age of the building, and decisions about the bed-and-breakfast building would need to be made. And finding and hiring a professional chef, brewer and other restaurant staff, developing a menu, training and promoting the restaurant before launch would all take time (and money) – but that might be more easily absorbed by an already-successful business with a track record of making such things work. Having an ‘extra’ location would be an ideal way to test out new beers on a smaller scale – and for a larger craft brewer with a more national scope (e.g. Rogue or Stone), it could be a very useful way to get an east-coast outpost up and running without investing in (too much) new brewing equipment.

Option Two – Gypsy Brewer Paradise

The General Lafayette property includes a cottage and guest house; while it is far from an ideal place to operate a bed-and-breakfast, it could be a perfect way to host traveling brewers like Pretty Things or Stillwater for a longer-term engagement – after all, housing would be included. Rather than relying on the individual brewer-in-residence to supply all the beer, some of the tap lines could be reserved for other local brewers as well – cultivating and maintaining these relationships would go a long way toward extending the pub’s reach – following the Earth Bread + Brewery model would be no bad move. The novelty of hosting rotating brewers creates ample opportunity for special events, tastings and new beer launches.  While day-to-day business would still need to rely on having high-quality food and service at a reasonable price (think TJ’s – they really know how to do this), bringing the beer geeks back again and again works to keep things ticking over nicely as well.  And hey, it’s a good way to generate a little press coverage.  There’s even potentially room for a take-out bottle shop – again, bowing to  Pennsylvania laws, it could be a side business worth pursuing, especially if it’s offering things that are hard-to-find or are brewpub exclusives.

In Any Event

Before the General Lafayette Inn closed late in 2010, it was sorely lacking in a few key areas – most notably the much-aforementioned food and service, but it also was not well served by its web site or other promotional activities. Regardless of who takes on the location, these elements will all need to be addressed. It needs a completely new web site, social media profiles, well-planned events and food – and service – worth the drive. It also needs to reach back out to the Mug Club members and local homebrew clubbers who previously met there, and a reinstitution of events like Winterfest, the annual indoor celebration of cold-weather beers hosted at the brewpub for years, would be very welcome as well.

Another factor that cannot be overlooked is the historic value of the property – and maintaining the original fabric doesn’t come for free. But much more could be done to properly research and promote the venue as a historic site; partnering with some of the area’s tourism folk would not go amiss, nor would locating and displaying historic photos, clippings and other ephemera relating to the area’s history (without becoming an Applebee’s, obviously). And let’s not overlook the folklore aspect an old property like this one has to offer – why not generate some free publicity by inviting one of the seemingly endless number of ghost hunting television shows to stay the night? I’m sure they could rustle up a few orbs or loud bangs, and it gets people in the doors. Make sure they have great food and a good experience and they will come back again.

Before the most recent incarnation of the General Lafayette went under, it was a regular destination for us to take out-of-town guests (look! it’s old!) as well as to enjoy some unusual local beers (and the often-on-offer lower alcohol beers were great for whomever was unlucky enough to be the driver). If Fork & Barrel can get people to a part of East Falls that has only marginally better public transit access, there’s no reason the General Lafayette Inn cannot – it just needs a firm hand, great food and beer and (here’s the hard part) access to capital to get things moving in the right direction. With its 300th anniversary only a few years away, it’s time someone took the reins with a long-term view of its past and future.

Updates: For further updates, try here or here…or here!

BrewDog Tokyo*

Horrors!Scotland’s BrewDog has garnered many a headline for their incredibly high-octane beers over the past few years; while it might have seemed that they were caught up in the high-gravity-for-the-sake-of-it craze, I am happy to report that their substance more than backs up the style.  First off, a little about the beer’s origin – and you have to love a brewery that has a sense of humor about their products (notably their response to the hand-wringing that accompanied the launch of this beer – a 1.1% brew called Nanny State).  Tokyo* is described as an  ‘intergalactic fantastic oak aged stout‘ – inspired by an old-school video game, it has plenty of dark malts, a little bit of jasmine and some cranberries for good measure, Galena hops and it clocks in at a whopping 18.2% ABV.  No one is going to mistake this for any sort of session beer, regardless of who’s crafting the definition.

It’s certainly an ‘occasion’ beer – and even if the occasion happens to be, ‘hey, BrewDog Tokyo* is on tap and available in a reasonably-sized pour!’ well, that’s still an occasion.   The beer pours a deep brown, with a thin tan head; there’s no mistaking that there’s more than a little alcohol in store, but the chief aroma still might best be described as ‘malty goodness.’   There is a surprising amount of vanilla in the flavor that pairs very well indeed with the roasty malts; perhaps what is most unusual is how smooth the finish is.  I sometimes find wood-aged beers a little too ‘woody’ for their own good, but this never crosses that line.  It’s certainly very reminiscent of whisky, but still manages to stay on the ‘beer’ side of the equation.  While it would not be accurate to suggest that it disguises its alcohol content, it’s eminently sippable and doesn’t immediately suggest that it’s quite as strong as it actually is.  It made an ideal dessert beer.

As a side note, check out some of BrewDog’s ‘normal’ ABV offerings – their 5am Saint, in particular, is as solid and tasty a go-to ale as one could wish for – it quietly speaks for itself while its mega-strong labelmates generate a little (almost-always-welcome) publicity.