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.

White Birch Barrel Aged Elysium

White Birch ElysiumAs a rule, I’m not a huge fan of barrel-aged beers. I realize that may count as heresy to some in the beer geek community, especially when it can seem that every brewery out there is doing a barrel-aged version of something, but with a few exceptions, they tend not to be to my taste.  Elysium, however, is one of those wonderful exceptions – but first a few notes of introduction to the creators of this beer.  White Birch Brewing is a small, NH-based brewery that launched in 2009 – they have only recently moved from bottling and labeling each beer by hand.  Despite the fact that they are still in an early stage of their growth, they are already helping newcomers to the industry through an apprenticeship program that offers some useful hands-on experience at each point in the brewing (and product launch) process – it’s an interesting initiative.

But let’s return to Elysium – it’s an imperial stout that’s been resting comfortably in a carefully-selected beer for just the right amount of time.  As mentioned above, woody beers and I do not usually get along, but this has quite a different character; rather than a heavy, oaky flavor often found in barrel-aged beers, this comes across as something of a ‘blonde wood’ (for lack of a better term) – it pairs well with the rich, dark beer for a unique flavor.  There’s definitely a bit of a chocolate taste in there, and something of a ‘wild’ flavor as well; it’s not terribly roasty, given the style, but I think that would have been overkill with the wood-aging.  It’s remarkably sippable, given its 11% ABV, and it was wonderful with dessert.

I’m looking forward to trying more from a small brewery that seems to be starting things off the right way.

Beer Review: Pretty Things KK

Pretty Things KKA few weeks ago, A Good Beer Blog asked whether brewing historic beer styles was becoming a new trend, and pointed to Pretty Things KK as one example.  The beer, a recreation of a dark-yet-hoppy ale originally brewed in London in 1901, was a collaboration with Ron Pattinson.  Pattinson’s blog, Shut Up About Barclay Perkins, has long been essential reading for those interested in beer history – using primary sources from brewery archives, he’s managed to dispel quite a few myths about brewing in the past and has exploded less-than-evidence-based theories about beer styles.  Obviously, as an ex-archivist, I have a lot of time for this sort of work – more breweries should hire archivists (and pay them reasonably well) – but I digress.

As a longtime reader of Pattinson’s blog and a fan of some of his previous historic recreations, brewed in partnership with Brouwerij de Molen (especially the 1914 London Porter), I was pleased to have the opportunity to try this beer.  I admit to no small level of Pretty Things fandom going in (their St. Botolph’s Town was one of my favorite new beers when it launched), so my expectations were very high for this beer – and I was not disappointed.

The physical description is simple – it’s essentially black, with quite a fluffy off-white head, and the hops and malt aromas swirl together.  The taste is harder to pin down – it’s much simpler to sum it up as ‘tasty goodness,’ as some of its complexities are a bit difficult to detail.  It’s roasty and malty, but almost chocolately as well; my co-conspirator suggested that it tasted not unlike Theo Chocolate’s Bread and Chocolate bar, and this was a very apt comparison (minus the hops, of course) – it had dark chocolate notes with earthy undertones.  But then, of course, there were the hops; in a marked difference from most black IPAs (or Cascadian Dark Ales, or whatever you’d like to call them), they were much grassier and lacked the citrusy punch that American hops tend to impart.  I did wonder, however, whether the English hop varieties employed (Bramling Cross and Kent Goldings, if you’re keeping score) have changed much over the past century – it’s entirely possible that the flavors have shifted somewhat over time as growing conditions have altered.

It might be said that KK has a bit in common with Tröegs Dead Reckoning Porter (in that both have a darker base style with a lot of hops added in), but they head in different flavor directions – and KK is considerably stronger, though it’s rather deceptive in that regard and eminently drinkable. Given the success of this beer, I am now very keen to track down the other Pretty Things/Ron Pattinson collaboration – an 1832 Mild that would readily confound those who adhere to the modern definition of the style.

On the whole, the endeavor can be summed up thusly: beer + primary sources FTW!

Halloween Beer – A Land Beyond Pumpkin

NightmareWhile I am certainly a fan of some pumpkin beers, notably Dogfish Head’s Punkin Ale, there’s a wider variety of Halloween-appropriate craft beers worth seeking out.  No doubt Rogue sees an uptick in sales of their Dead Guy and Double Dead Guy Ales, and both are fine beers indeed (although I’m partial to the DDG), but I usually prefer something a little more subtle for Samhain.  With that in mind, there are some fine British beers I like to seek out at this time of year – and many of them are very sessionable indeed, so it’s a good excuse to sample a few.

One of my favorites is Nightmare from Nick Stafford’s Hambleton Ales, an independent brewery in North Yorkshire – the beer is smooth, malty goodness, perfect for an autumn evening.  Moving over to Lancashire, another north of England brewery with regular US exports is Moorhouse’s – and they have a number of perfectly-named beers for the holiday: Black Cat, one of the best milds available anyway (yes, it’s only 3.4%, but it’s full of flavor) and Pendle Witches Brew, a slightly heftier beer with sweet malt notes.  Both brews commemorate the ‘Pendle Witches‘ – a group of women tried for witchcraft in 1612 (most of whom were imprisoned and subsequently hanged at Lancaster Castle – which was still a prison when I lived there in the 1990s).   Perhaps because the history is more well-known in the local area, their labels have never generated the sort of controversy currently engulfing Lost Abbey’s Witch’s Wit – but more on that later.

Heading south, Oxfordshire’s Wychwood Brewery famously exports its Hobgoblin around the world; their Scarecrow can also be worth seeking out if you prefer something a little less malty (but really, shouldn’t most fall beers be malty?), though it still has some nice biscuity flavors. One word of caution with Wychwood beers (and perhaps this problem arises because some stores stock up on them) – they are all outstanding when they’ve been properly looked after, but I’ve had more than one bottle of Hobgoblin that had clearly been sitting around a while – make sure you get it reasonably fresh from a good distributor or beer store so you know you’re getting the real flavor of the beer.  Even better, try one of them on cask near the brewery – they are lovely that way.

Of course, there are plenty of quality beers made in the US that are Halloween-ready. Colorado’s Avery Brewing produces a Demons of Ale series: Mephistopheles Stout is not brewed until December, but  Beast, a Belgian Grand Cru should be ready just about now – although it’s definitely not something you’re going to have many of at one sitting – ditto for the other in the series, Samael’s, an oak-aged ale hovering rather close to the 15% ABV mark.  For something a little more low-key, Gritty McDuff’s makes a Halloween Ale that makes its way out of Maine every year, and if you’re in more of a lager mood, there’s always Dixie Blackened Voodoo, originally from New Orleans (though still brewed elsewhere, post-Katrina).

Heading to the Midwest, Great Lakes Nosferatu also fits the bill (though I cannot comment on it specifically yet – it’s sitting in my fridge, waiting), Founders contributes their Devil Dancer, a Triple IPA and Bell’s Hell Hath No Fury…Ale is always tasty.

Out on the West coast, the aforementioned brouhaha over the label for Lost Abbey Witch’s Wit has certainly given the beer some publicity, if nothing else (although it seems to have also knocked the brewery offline) – while I’d have to agree I’d prefer to see something more along the lines of the Pendle Witches Brew approach, the beer itself is tasty indeed.  Moving up the coast to Seattle, Black Raven Brewing has a full lineup of potential Halloween beers – Morrighan Stout is just one that sounds thematically-appropriate, and ideal for a chilly night.

Of course, you can still enjoy a pumpkin beer for Halloween – but why not save that for Thanksgiving?  In any event, happy Halloween!

Beer Review: Victory Pursuit Pale Ale

Victory Pursuit Pale AleI enjoyed this on cask at the brewpub recently, and it was very tasty indeed – eminently drinkable, but with plenty of representation from both the hop and malt components.  There was plenty of hop aroma (it’s a limited-time single-hop offering from the Downingtown brewery) and a thick, creamy white head over a deep straw-colored beer.  I would be curious to compare a ‘normal’ version to the cask version, as the cask version is so deliciously smooth. There’s a great bready or biscuity malt character, but the hops are ever-present – although more in a floral, gently spicy way as opposed to a citrusy bitter manner.

This actually reminded me quite a bit of Manny’s Pale Ale, and that’s no bad thing by any means; it’s one of my favorite American pale ales.  One wonders if, perhaps, the Pacific Northwest character that is so evident in Yakima Twilight Glory was also something of an inspiration here.  That’s not to suggest the beer is identical to Manny’s Pale Ale, but they both fit quite comfortably (and rather high up) in the same section of the beer firmament.

I’d love to see this as a year-round offering – it would be a nice complement to Yards Brawler as a great beer to always have on hand, although it’s most welcome as an occasional treat as well.

Dogfish Head Chicha

Dogfish Head ChichaLast year, Dogfish Head’s Chicha proved to be much more difficult to produce than anticipated; the brewing of this year’s installment of the latest ‘new/old’ beer apparently went a little more smoothly, thanks to a bit more experience and research.  However, it’s still not easy to make this beer in any sort of quantity, since the production method goes well beyond ‘hand-crafted’  – there are many mandibles involved.  But fear not the saliva exchange – the chewing and spitting happens pre-boil, so the resulting drink won’t give everyone mono, and you have to like a beer that comes with its own beautifully-designed handout.

As someone with too many degrees in archaeology, I have great admiration for all of Dogfish Head’s historical recreations (or, if you prefer, reinterpretations) – Sah’Tea and Theobroma are some of my favorite beers, and I love a little Chateau Jiahu from time to time. Each one combines solid research with an experimental sense of adventure – it has been suggested elsewhere that historical beer styles are becoming a trend throughout the craft beer continuum; I would certainly be in favor of that – but I digress.

And so back to the tasting of Chicha 2010 – while it’s quite light in body and low in alcohol, something about it makes it seem like an ideal sipping drink.  The spearmint creates an interesting contrast with the overall grainy character, imparting an almost cooling sensation.  There are some notes similar to clove oil or banana that might appear in a hefeweizen, but the mouthfeel (I know, I know) is so different that it never suggests that direction.  Perhaps as some sort of psychological counterpoint to its production, it comes across as extraordinarily ‘clean-drinking’ – it’s refreshing and leaves an absolutely unique overall impression.