Saturday, December 31, 2005

Port wine is a holiday tradition.

The basics of Port are familiar to many readers: Fortified wine from Portugal, mostly red and always sweet, and a great libation after dinner, with cheese, or accompanied by a good cigar.

If left to my own devices, I'd probably drink a glass with scrambled eggs for breakfast.

For the night before New Year's Eve, international jetsetting pilot and Knobs resident Tim Eads put together a casual but highly satisfying Port tasting that was held in Prost!, which is what we'll be calling the as yet unfinished conference and special functions wing of NABC.

There have been sporadic efforts in the past to gather together local Port lovers for such an event during the holiday season. Last evening's was a BYOB affair, with those in attendance also bringing small nibbles.

Next year, we'd like to stage a tasting similar to the fondly remembered time back in 2000 (or 2001?) when we priced and purchased a full range of Ports, then assessed a per-person charge.

In any event, we'll have more flexibility for hosting the Port tasting in 2006 owing to the ready availability of Prost!, which might even be finished (?) by this time next year.

Briefly googling, we find:

Into Wine: Enjoying Port

The Vintage Port Site (operated by the Symington Family Port Companies)

Prior to my only visit to Portugal in 2000, the Danish journalist Kim Wiesener, a longtime friend, recommended Richard Mayson's "Port and the Douro" as the finest overview of all things Port. Indeed, it is excellent, and if you're interested in Port, it's a must-have.

There's a new edition available, and I'm sure that Randy Smith at Destinations Booksellers would be able to track it down for those interested.

Here's a capsule description:

Mayson recounts the history of this great fortified wine up to the present day, including an assessment of major vintages back to 1896. He examines the physical condition of the region, grape varieties and vineyards with an appraisal of each of the main quintas, providing a directory of individual producers and shippers.

Friday, December 30, 2005

New Albany's food and libation choices merit a "top" mention in LEO.

Note: I ran this one yesterday at NA Confidential.


In LEO's year-end “top 11” survey of Louisville vibrant dining scene, New Albany scores!

This is great news for the folks at Federal Hill and La Rosita, and it's always pleasing when Rich O's is recognized.

11 best culinary events/discoveries of the year, by Marty Rosen (LEO WEEKLY).

Here’s the New Albany entry:

(11) And like Market Street (Louisville), New Albany is developing a flourishing dining scene. Yes, the chains are moving in, but distinctive niches are being filled by places like Federal Hill (310 Pearl St., 812-948-6646), an idiosyncratic Italian restaurant in the heart of New Albany’s downtown, where the smell of freshly minced garlic heralds brilliant Italian sausages and lovingly prepared meatballs; La Rosita (2535 Charlestown Road, 948-0401), a tiny little taco stand where you’ll find succulent tacos filled with succulent stewed goat (and more conventional ingredients); and Rich O’s Public House (3312 Plaza Dr., 812-949-2804), home to the most ambitious beer list in the region, a place where the publican’s motto is: “Extremism in the defense of good beer is no vice.”

The downtown New Albany scene is about to get better, but the press release is still a few days away ...

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Chicago's Berghoff Restaurant will close its doors in February.

The only constant is change.

Chicago institution closing after more than 100 years; The Berghoff Restaurant shutting down in February (Associated Press).

It's hard not to feel a sense of Chicago's history inside the 107-year-old Berghoff Restaurant, where hand-painted murals depict the 1893 World's Fair and the city's first post-Prohibition liquor license proudly hangs.

But in a few months The Berghoff - one of this food-loving city's oldest and most beloved restaurants - will become history itself, leaving its hordes of devoted patrons crying in their German lager and plates of sauerbraten.

I only went once, way back in 1992, and although the meal was enjoyable, the best part was hitting the afternoon happy hour at the restaurant’s stand-up taproom and oyster bar next door.

It must have been during the brief time that there was a Berghoff microbrewery nearby in Chicago (Ontario Street?), because we drank dollar and a quarter Porter and simply thought it was grand.

One thing’s for sure: Take more than a few trips through Bavaria, and German-style cooking in America is never quite the same.

Here’s a link to a Huber Brewing Company timeline with additional information on the connection between the Berghoff Restaurant and its contract brewer.

Will the brand survive?

Does it really matter?

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Publican announces DaveFest 2006 for May (dates TBA).

Mark your calendars ... in general terms. Brush away the cat hair, find your post-it notes, and remember that some time in May – the exact date hasn’t been determined, because it must come after Gravity Head, my April trip to Oregon & Washington and the Kentucky Derby – I’ll be putting together a mini-draft celebration at Rich O’s, henceforth to be known as DaveFest 2006.

This is not a joke. I have not been drinking (well, at least not today).


To unravel this obscure festival mystery, which has developed spontaneously following a conversation about “customer appreciation” beer fests, please proceed to the following blog entry:

Dave, seriously, I'm excited.

Of the top 12 beers you've listed, only Avery’s Old Jubilation is a probable no-go owing to its seasonal status. Of the remainder, four are “special order” beers, but shouldn’t be a problem with this much notice.

So … there could be as many as 10 Dave-certified draft beers at DaveFest 2006.

I really like this idea, too, and could see doing it with a different person every year just for the fun of it.

Perhaps we can do t-shirts, assuming I learn to spell before then. Here's a template of sorts:

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

How the Curmudgeon spent his Christmas holiday.

The Curmudgeon has found time to drink beer during the past few hectic days, but just barely.

During full and tiring work days the week before Christmas and yesterday (ouch! I’m getting too old for the hoofing out there on the floor), there were limited opportunities to sample the Saturnalia listed choices, and of these, I have to go with the Stille Nacht from Belgium’s Dolle Brouwers as the best.

The keg we had was at least a year and a half old, and the transformation through aging of what is always a fine, strong Belgian was a source of wonderment. The rich and almost mead-like foundation was complemented by a gentle and appropriate oxidization, lending the familiar sherry notes and a pronounced nuttiness to the palate.

Similarly, the Kiuchi Hitachino Nest New Year Celebration Ale 2005 (spiced, funky eisbock) benefited from being held for ten months after release. It remains a strange recipe, perhaps a bit too busy in the end, but it is one worth trying while it’s here.

In the end, though some were better than others, and with the exception of the spoiled Gale’s Christmas firkin, there were no duds in the Saturnalia bunch, two-thirds of which are depleted after eight business days. Several remain in transit, and with luck we’ll have a modest second wave during the first week of January.

On the personal front, many of you know that Christmas Eve is the traditional shopping day for Kevin Richards and the Curmudgeon, and despite a slight work-related intrusion on Kevin’s part, we were able to fulfill our duties on Saturday morning for the eighth year running.

“Shopping” was completed by eleven a.m., which by a remarkable coincidence was the exact time when Bluegrass Brewing Company on Shelbyville Road in Louisville opened its doors to serve us house beer and chicken wings for an ideal bargain hunter’s Christmas lunch.

BBC pub brewmaster Jerry Gnagy’s Mephistopheles and Bourbon Barrel Smoked Porter were fine accompaniments to the spicy poultry, and took the edge right off the stressful (?) morning.

After a nice chat with Becca and Pat Hagan, we departed for the busy Bardstown Road corridor and a quick, predominantly self-aggrandizing DVD and CD sweep through Ear X-tasy before pulling up tall stools at tiny Cumberland Brews for Christmas visitation with the hard toiling Allgeier brothers and a few pints of brewer Matt Gould’s Scotch Ale and Pale Ale.

Near the end of our Cumberland session, former NABC brewer Michael Borchers came through to clink glasses, proving that great minds do, indeed, drink alike.

Kevin dropped me off and returned home to smoke meat for his family gathering, and I recouped in front of the espresso machine for an hour or two prior to Mr. And Mrs. Curmudgeon’s date at Maido Essential Japanese at 1758 Frankfort Avenue in Louisville.

You’ve already read shameless plugs for Maido in these pages, and please endure another reminder that if you’ve not visited yet, make it a point to plan an expedition very soon.

For novices like me, the cuisine is best understood as Japanese tapas, in the sense of numerous options (sushi, soup, kimchee … the menu runs for pages) for assembling a large meal from marvelous, differing smaller components, and it is joyously augmented with a varied and intelligent short beer list and a dozen types of Sake.

Speaking of Sake, and closing this report, I spoke with Jim Huie at Maido about the prospect of staging a Sake sampling at some point in the future. He’s agreeable, and it would make for an educational evening, so if you’re interested in a late winter or early spring field trip, let me know.

Photo credits: Filip Geerts, BBC website, Robin Garr and the Courier-Journal.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Militaristic microbrewing in Northern Indiana.

First there was Warbird Brewing Company (“Above and Beyond”) in Ft. Wayne, whose original claim to Indiana microbrewing fame was T-6 Red Ale in a can that features appropriate fighter plane graphics.

A second airplane-based microbrewery, Nine G (“Taking Craft Beer to New Heights”), recently began distributing its wares in Indianapolis, and plans to open a taproom in the brewery’s hometown of South Bend in the spring of 2006.

According to Nine G’s web site, its founders “share two passions: flying fighters and enjoying great beer.” The site includes a description of Nine G’s Infidel Imperial India Pale Ale that incorporates a poem about Osama bin Laden and American warriors.

Meanwhile, Warbird has introduced a second beer, P-47 Warbird Wheat, which is being billed as a German-style Hefe-Weizen.

The Curmudgeon hasn’t tasted these beers, and as a staunch supporter of Indiana brewing, I wouldn’t think of criticizing the military imagery ... by the way, has anyone seen that bottle of London Blitz Bock I’ve been saving for Thunder Over Louisville?


Come to think of it, what a great idea … all those people, annual air show, marketing opportunities ... more on that later.

(See also this article about Warbird at Indiana Beer. Photo credits: Warbird and Nine G, respectively)

Sunday, December 25, 2005

More on the new Irish pub coming to St. Matthews.

In November, we reported that Maier’s, St. Matthews tavern, was changing hands. Here’s the rest of the story.

Both Business First of Louisville and the on-line Louisville Restaurant Forum confirm an Irish identity for what apparently will be called Brendan O’s, located in the former home of the landmark St. Matthews tavern, Maier’s.

This will be a couple of doors down from Bluegrass Brewing Company, near the grand intersection of Shelbyville Road, Frankfort Avenue, Lexington Road, and Chenoweth and Breckinridge Lane.

In forum postings last week, Tom O’Shea and one of his partners in the new business discussed their concept for the new establishment, one described as a more “grown up” Irish pub ambience and an accompanying desire to expand food offerings beyond what they’re able to do with their younger Baxter Avenue demographic (at O’Shea’s Traditional and Flanagan’s Ale House).

It certainly sounds like fun, and when Brendan O’s is open, you’ll get a report.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Catching my breath.

No work today, after a week filled with Fridays and one great opportunity after another to talk beer with patrons.

The Saturnalia beer list has been drastically reduced, with a handful still in transit. Your enthusiasm for this year's fest is much appreciated, and next up is Gravity Head.

If there's a chance later today, I'll append an updated Saturnalia list below. Until then, go do whatever it is you do on a holiday.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Creator of low-calorie beer dies.

Paging Mr. Bosch ... Mr. Hieronymous Bosch ... we have an announcement ...

Without comment (after all, it is Christmas):

Joseph L. Owades, 86; Created 1st Low-Calorie Beer, Became a Consultant to Microbrewers

Thanks to David Pierce for drawing our attention to the passing of the architect of Lite.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Beer Grinch's Stocking Stuffers -- and a plug for local liquor stores that sell good beer.

For the first time in a long while, I didn’t make much of an effort this year to stock a range of bottled Christmas and winter seasonals at Rich O’s, which I’d done in the past primarily as a courtesy for carryout sales and gift giving during the holiday season.

Part of the reason for this is the advent of Saturnalia, which provides another draft (i.e., bread and butter for us in terms of sales) marketing opportunity alongside Gravity Head and Lupulin Land.

More significantly, this decision owes to the far better bottled beer selections being offered at local package stores. We’ve never had it this good on the Indiana side of the Ohio.

It’s hard to choose between Bridge Liquors (State Street, New Albany) and The Keg Liquors (Lewis & Clark Parkway, Clarksville) when it comes to beer selection, but it should suffice to say that both are offering extensive choices in the familiar craft beer categories.

Old Mill Wine & Spirits (Charlestown Road, New Albany; its web site seems to have disappeared) and Hunter Station Liquors (Hunter Station Road, Sellersburg) retain competitive beer stocks, though not to the level of Bridge and The Keg.

At Rich O’s, I decided to pick and choose a few relatively rare beers (and accompaniments) to feature as something I’m calling “The Beer Grinch’s Stocking Stuffers,” and I expect to expand on this idea next year during holiday season. The basic idea is to hoard a few hard-to-get items of interest to the advanced beer lover, and make them available during the week before Christmas.

Consequently, here’s what I have on the Beer Grinch table for your consideration:

$3.50 each or 4 for $12.00 – Assorted signature glassware basket, which will be replenished as depleted according to random selection.

$10 – Alaskan Smoked Porter (22 oz)

$15 – T-shirt (Saturnalia long sleeve; “Red Room” Rich O’s; NABC “I’m for It”)

$20 – Peche Mortel Imperial Coffee Stout (22 oz)
$20 – Three Floyds Behemoth Barley Wine (22 oz)

$35 – Tim Webb’s new 2005 edition of “Good Beer Guide to Belgium,” paperback.

Your patronage is much appreciated – and, of course, I get to keep leftovers for myself …

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Blurring the lines between caffeine and alcohol with "Mortal Sin."

It has become my habit after dining to crave an espresso, and since we purchased an Italian-made automatic espresso machine last year for daily home use, good coffee is available at all hours.

Alas, there’s the rub. I’m good for two double espressos a day, and sometimes three, but always before one or two in the afternoon. Regrettably, the caffeine interferes with my sleep if coffee is consumed later in the evening than that, and most of the time, it just isn’t worth it.

Instead, typically I’ll have an after dinner beer, even if a rich, concentrated espresso continues to linger in my mind.

We’ll leave Port wine out of the discussion for now.

What if the coffee and the beer were combined in the same package?

It happens more commonly than you might think.

I can’t remember the first time being introduced to a coffee beer, although it may have been a homebrew long, long ago. It seems to me that David Pierce crafted one at BBC, and Matt Gould at Cumberland Brews (both breweries in Louisville), and there would have been microbrewed versions like Bell’s Java Stout and Bloomington Brewing’s Java Porter available for sampling at Rich O’s, with still others available at various beer festivals stateside – and I distinctly recall brewpubs in both Prague and Vienna serving beer with coffee as an ingredient.

Tonight, following a hearty improvised Italian stew made with tomatoes, onions, garlic, beans and pasta, it occurred to me to reach deep into the beer cupboard for a long-sheltered bottle of Peche Mortel Imperial Coffee Stout, brewed with fair trade coffee by the Brasserie Dieu du Ciel in Montreal, Canada, and the subject of much rabid discussion in beer aficionado circles earlier in 2005.

The name of the beer is French for “mortal sin.”

Believe it or not, this is the first bottle I’ve opened since purchasing an allocated case of twelve in April, and for a wholesale price that has been recently matched in terms of stratospheric heights only by the heavy-duty specialties of the Three Floyds microbrewery in northern Indiana.

All I can say is, “wow.”

Beers truly worth the hype are rare, but if – and only if – you enjoy coffee the way I enjoy coffee, Peche Mortel is amazing, and perhaps worth the deal I’m about to offer you.

Of the essential components of Imperial Stout, a strident black color and a mouth-filling body (9% abv) are the only ones making a showing alongside the strident coffee character, which acts as the surrogate balancing hop in this luxurious ale. As with espresso, it’s overwhelmingly roasty, and leaves a faint acidic tickle going down my throat.

Very, very specialized … and very, very good.

Because four bottles were previously vended, there are only seven left in our present allotment. Once again stressing that if you, or the recipient of your intended coup of a stocking stuffer, don’t like coffee, this is not the beer for you, nevertheless be aware that on Tuesday afternoon, I’ll be making the last seven 22 oz. bottles available at Rich O’s for $20 each (carry-out).

Naturally, I’ll try to acquire more Peche Mortel when the getting’s good. Until then, it’s good to share.

Is the caffeine going to keep me awake tonight?

Monday, December 19, 2005

It’s official: NABC is the “brewery with no beer.”

The last remaining keg of Community Dark has passed into the pre-Christmas night, and we’re at least two weeks away from being able to drink the batch of Elector that’s just been brewed.

It tastes good sampled out of the fermenter, but it’s a bit young.

Happily, there are 28 microbrewed and imported beers still on tap, including the first wave of Saturnalia winter solstice draft selections, so we’ll not be running completely dry.

If you’re just tuning in, the reason for our running out of house-brewed beer is that we’ve spent the past six weeks installing brewery add-ons, including two new fermenters and four serving tanks. It is a process that required more dismantling of existing equipment than we’d expected, and it came during the busy time of the year, when more pints than usual are being consumed.

All that can be said at this late date is “wait ‘til next year.” By January, there should be quite a lot of NABC beer flowing from the taps as we work toward the eventual goal of 6 to 8 house drafts available at all times.

Taken as a whole, the episode reminds me of the hilarious 1950’s-era Australian song that I first heard performed by the Dubliners with heavily bearded and gravelly-voiced Ronnie Drew singing the lead.

The Pub with No Beer

It's lonesome away from your kindred and all
By the camp fire at night where the wild dingoes call,
But there's nothing so lonesome so morbid or drear
Than to stand in a bar of a pub with no beer.

Now the publican's anxious for the quota to come
There's a far away lock on the face of the bum
The maid's gone all cranky and the cook's acting queer
What a terrible place is a pub with no beer.

Then the stock-man rides up with his dry dusty throat
He breasts up to the bar, pulls a wat from his coat,
But the smile on his face quickly turns to a sneer,
When the bar man said sadly the pub's got no beer.

Ther's a dog on the 'randa-h for his master he waits
But the boss is inside drinking wine with his mates
He hurries for cover and cringes in fear
It's no place for a dog round a pub with no beer.

Old Billy the blacksmith first time in his life
Has gone home cold sober to his darling wife,
He walks in the kitchen, she says you're early me dear,
But he breaks down and tells her the pub's got no beer.

The story is told here: Daily Lush: The Pub with No Beer, or “the worst thing that can happen to a thirsty swagman in the Australian outback.”

The former hotel that lays claim to the distinction of being the dry pub mentioned in the song has reinvented itself accordingly: The Pub with No Beer, which was slated to open its own microbrewery in 2005.

Wonder if they ever run out, just for old times’ sake?

Sunday, December 18, 2005


For the second annual celebration of Saturnalia at NABC, I decided to take a page from our long-running Gravity Head draft festival and design a commemorative t-shirt.

It turned out quite handsomely: Sand-colored, long-sleeved, with bright, seasonally suited lettering in green and red, contrasting with the familiar “Roman party procession” clipart work, and bearing the slogan, “Putting the Pagan back into Christmas – one pint at a time.”

Opening the delivery boxes last Friday, I noticed one small problem.

I’d misspelled the word “solstice,” omitting the second “s.” My t-shirt maker missed it, too. Now we have 80 shirts that hawk the “winter soltice.”

To put it mildly, I’m embarrassed to be on the wrong side of such an error, although it provides a small measure of consolation to be told that one man’s spelling mistake is another man’s collector’s item.

But only a small measure, and I’m grinding my teeth as I write.

And so, I’m here today to tell you that we have plenty of attractive “winter soltice” shirts.


Saturday, December 17, 2005

Opening night for Saturnalia MMV was a blast.

Saturnalia MMV is underway, and as usual, there are surprises to be recounted and updates for consideration.

Unhappily, the firkin of Gale’s Christmas Ale (2003) proved “off,” and it was scratched. In fairness, the two-year old cask ale came to us with an asterisk, and we took it on in the hope that strength and spice might be sufficiently stabilizing influences, but although we expect an element of funky tartness in the Gale’s product line, salad vinegar is a different matter, indeed. There’ll be a refund, so in the end, it was an acceptable gamble.

Remember the Peanuts comic strips and Lucy always pulling the football away just as Charlie Brown attempts to kick it? Welcome to my wonderful world of annual wholesaler error in the form of North Vernon Beverage Co., Inc., and a Saturnalia scratch for Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale. Those of you reading who enjoyed drinking the nectar at Buckhead’s in Jeffersonville … well, see, those were OUR KEGS you were savoring. I hope they were good.

Meanwhile, proving that wholesalers also screw each other, and not only retailers, World Class Beverage (Indianapolis) did exactly what it was supposed to do and still came away empty handed. WCB sent a truck to Chicago to get multiple kegs of Young’s Winter Warmer that had been promised to it, but once there, was shorted, leaving none for us.

As for the beers that managed to make it through our doors and have been tapped for Saturnalia, I’m most pleasantly surprised by the Schmaltz He-Brew Jewbelation 5766, an ale I was determined not to like. It boasts nine malts and nine hops -- and 9% abv. Generally speaking, such made-for-PR beers are far too busy in terms of flavor, and yet the Jewbelation is an excellent, warming specialty ale, utterly indefinable in terms of style. I stand corrected.

From the field of American microbrewed Christmas ales, Anchor’s annual dark and spicy concoction always has been a great personal favorite, and it’s no exception in 2005.

The Belgian contingent fully displays its expected classiness, with two Dolle Brouwers ales worthy of mention. Dolle’s Special Extra Export Stout marries the expected rich roastiness and shadings of dry chocolate with the characteristic yeasty West Flanders funk, reminding us that the world’s most interesting Guinness is the Foreign Export Stout sold in the Low Countries.

My first pour of Dolle Stille Nacht provoked worry -- where was the usual burst of over-carbonated jet spray that I’ve come to expect from Dolle kegs? The hint of sour apple in the nose – should that be there? Was it spoiled or oxidized? The proof’s in the palate, and I needn’t have worried. With just a ripple of carbonation, this example of Stille Nacht (kegged in late 2004) is hearty, warming and almost mead-like in its honeyed elegance. Super, super example of the Belgian brewing craft.

Saturnalia’s lone German representative from Mahr’s of Bamberg offers a cleaner profile for those preferring a safer course. The UK’s Santa’s Butt quite possibly is the driest Porter I’ve ever tasted, while its companion, Seriously Bad Elf, might be best described as an Imperial Bitter, with excessive strength and a commensurate English hop bite to match.

All in all, it was a very satisfactory Friday, and of course the band plays on ‘til all the kegs are gone.

There was one other noteworthy glitch. You’ll figure it out soon enough.

Here are links to much appreciated media coverage:

Winter draft Rich O's has some heady brews on tap, by Susan Reigler (Courier-Journal Critic).

LEO’s tips, by Kevin Gibson.

Also, I was told that LEO’s Cary Stemle gave Saturnalia a nice tout on television, along with last evening’s musical performance at Destinations Booksellers in New Albany.

Thanks to everyone for your help in making these special events so enjoyable.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Early New Albany brewer and Scottish-American poet Hew Ainslie ... by Conrad Selle.

This biographical sketch of Hew Ainslie, New Albany's first commercial brewer, was written by Louisville goldsmith, writer and homebrewer Conrad Selle, with editing by the author, and originally was published in the FOSSILS newsletter circa 1994. Later it was a staple on the club's web site, but when the site changed web hosts last year it disappeared. I located it on a back-up zip disk. Many thanks to Conrad, whose tireless research into Louisville area brewing can be experienced in Louisville Breweries, co-written with Peter Guetig.

Many early brewers worked their trade as a sideline or temporary trade before moving on to other occupations. Hew Ainslie is unique for having been principally a poet.

He was born at Bargany in Ayrshire, Scotland on April 5, 1792. Hew was the only son of George Ainslie, an employee on the estate of Sir Hew Dalrymple Hamilton. He was educated in the parish school at Ballantrae, and later at the academy at Ayr. In 1809 his family moved to Roslin, about six miles from Edinburgh. He married his cousin Janet Ainslie in 1812, whose brother Jock had married Hew's sister Eleanora.

Ainslie studied law in Glasgow, and worked as a clerk in the Register House in Edinburgh. In 1820 he revisited Ayrshire on foot with James Wellstood and John Gibson and in the next two years wrote A Pilgrimage to the Land of Burns, which was published in London in 1822. The book was an account of their travels and visits with some of Robert Burns's contemporaries, with songs and ballads by Ainslie that were much in the style of Burns, and illustrations by Wellstood.

In July, 1822, Ainslie sailed from Liverpool to New York with his friend Wellstood. Mrs. Ainslie and their three children joined him in the following year. Ainslie and Wellstood purchased Pilgrim's Repose, a farm at Hoosac Falls in Rensselaer County, New York. Ainslie and his family lived there for almost three years before joining Robert Owen's utopian socialist cooperative community at New Harmony, Indiana in 1825.

When Owen's community failed about a year later they moved first to Cincinnati, where Ainslie became a partner with Price and (Thomas) Wood in a brewery, then to Louisville. In Louisville, a town of 7,000, Ainslie opened a brewery in 1829 at 7th Street between Water and Main. Records show that B. Foster, Enoch Wenzell and Robert McKenzie worked there.

In February, 1832 there was a major flood of the Ohio River, with the river's waters rising to 46 feet above the low water level. A contemporary account of the "calamity" reads:

This was an unparalleled flood in the Ohio. It commenced on the 10th of February and continued until the 21st of that month, having risen to (an) extraordinary height ... above low-water mark. The destruction of property by this flood was immense. Nearly all the frame buildings near the river were either floated off or turned over and destroyed. An almost total cessation in business was the necessary consequence; even farmers from the neighborhood were unable to get to the markets, the flood having so affected the smaller streams as to render them impassable. The description of the sufferings by this flood is appalling ...

Ainslie's brewery was swept away with most of the neighborhood, but in the following years he remained in the beer business, working at the Nuttall brewery on the west side of 6th Street between Water and Main.

In 1840 he opened the first brewery in New Albany, the partnership of Bottomley & Ainslie. Soon that business was destroyed by fire. In the 1841 Louisville City Directory, Hew Ainslie is listed as a maltster; it was his last listing in the brewing trade. Discouraged by fire and flood, he gave up the brewing business altogether. Thereafter, his working life became somewhat intertwined with that of his children, particularly George and James Wellstood Ainslie.

Hew and Janet Ainslie had ten children, seven of them surviving to adulthood. George Ainslie, the eldest Ainslie son, had been apprenticed to Lachan McDougall around 1830 to learn the iron foundry and moulding trade, and he had acquired a solid business and technical education. He became a foreman at John Curry's foundry and married Mary Thirlwell, daughter of Charles Thirlwell, who was a brewer at the Nuttall Brewery (Hew Ainslie's one-time employer).

Thirlwell eventually acquired Nuttall and operated it until 1856. In 1842, George Ainslie became a partner in Gowan and McGhee's Boone Foundry. By 1845 Hew Ainslie -- still a poet throughout -- was employed as a finisher there as well as working as a contractor and in the building trades.

George and James Ainslie became highly successful in the foundry and machine business, enabling their father to devote more time to writing in later life. In 1853, Hew Ainslie made a long visit to New Jersey to visit members of the family of James Wellstood, undoubtedly providing the poet with a nostalgic link to the Scotland of his youth.

In 1855 a collection of Ainslie's verse, Scottish Songs, Ballads and Poetry, was published in New York. One latter-day commentator called Ainslie's songs of the sea "the best that Scotland has produced," and perhaps this assessment was borne out by the reception accorded Ainslie in Scottish literary circles in 1863, when he returned to Scotland for a final visit.

Janet Ainslie died in 1863 prior to Hew's last Scottish journey. In 1868 the elderly poet/brewer went to live with his son George in a new home on Chestnut Street (between 9th and 10th) in Louisville, where he spent the last decade of his life and was a familiar sight as he passed time tending the garden there. Ainslie died on March 6, 1878, and was eulogized in the Courier-Journal as "a poet of considerable merit to the people of his native land." Hew and Janet Ainslie are buried in Cave Hill Cemetery.

In addition to the many accomplishments noted previously, Ainslie is remembered for his height -- at 6 feet, 4 inches, he referred to himself in his works as "The Lang Linker" -- and for never losing his Scottish accent during almost six decades in America.

There is no specific information to be found as to the products of the breweries with which Hew Ainslie was involved in Louisville and New Albany, but we can surmise from the available evidence that they were typical small breweries of the time, with four or five employees, making ale, porter and stout. As a man who appreciated truth and beauty, it is likely that Hew Ainslie made good malt, and being conscientious with it, good beer as well.

The following poems by Hew Ainslie are copied from the Filson Historical Society's extremely rare copy of A Pilgrimage to the Land of Burns and Poetry, Ainslie's 1822 work combined with later efforts and reprinted in 1892, the centenary of his birth.

(Author's note: I have heard a scrap or two of Robert Burns, and expect these are much better read aloud in Scots dialect.)


The midnight hour is clinking, lads,
An' the douce an' the decent are winking, lads;
Sae I tell ye again,
Be't weel or ill ta'en,
It's time ye were quatting your drinking, lads.
Gae ben, 'an mind your gauntry, Kate,
Gi'es mair o' your beer, an' less bantry, Kate,
For we vow, whaur we sit,
That afore we shall flit,
We'se be better acquaint wi' your pantry, Kate.
The "daft days" are but beginning, Kate,
An we're sworn. Would you hae us a sinning, Kate?
By our faith an' our houp,
We will stick by the stoup
As lang as the barrel keeps rinning, Kate.
Thro' hay, an' thro' hairst, sair we toil it, Kate,
Thro' Simmer, an' Winter, we moil it, Kate;
Sae ye ken, whan the wheel
Is beginning to squeal,
It's time for to grease an' to oil it, Kate.
Sae draw us anither drappy, Kate,
An' gie us a cake to our cappy, Kate;
For, by spiggot an' pin!
It's waur than a sin
To flit when we're sitting sae happy, Kate.


Let's drink to our next meeting, lads,
Nor think on what's atwixt;
They're fools wha spoil the present hour
By thinking on the next.
Then here's to Meg o' Morningside,
An Kate o' Kittlemark;
The taen she drank her hose and shoon,
The tither pawned her sark.
A load o' wealth, an' wardly pelf,
They say is sair to bear;
Sae he's a gowk would scrape an' howk
To make his burden mair

Then here's , &c.
Gif Care looks black the morn, lads,

As he's come doon the lum,
Let's ease our hearts by swearing, lads,
We never bade him come.
Then here's, &c.
Then here's to our next meeting, lads,
Ne'er think on what's atwixt;
They're fools who spoil the present hour
By thinking on the next.
Then here's, &c.


We lads that live up in the nobs,
Tho' our manners might yet bear a rubbing,
We're handy at neat little jobs
Such as chopping and hewing and grubbing.
Tho' we roost in a cabin of logs,
And clapboards lie 'twixt us and heaven,
Our mast makes us fine oily hogs,
And from hoop-poles we pick a good living.
Right quiet -- to a decent degree --
it's seldom we guzzle it deep, Sir,
Tho' we don't mind a bit of a spree,
Provided the liquor is cheap, Sir.
Our neighbours, that live 'cross the drink.
May laugh at our fondness for cider,
But so long as we pocket their clink
They may laugh till their mouths they grow wider.
Our gals make our trousers, you see,
From that beautiful stuff called tow linen,
and in coats of the linsey -- dang me,
If we don't look both handsome and winning.
Our wives are our weavers, to boot;
Ourselves are first rate on a shoe, Sir;
We can doctor a tub with a hoop --
And hark ! we're our own niggers too, Sir,
So here's to our Hoosier land,
The sons of its soil and its waters !
May the "nullies" ne'er get it in hand,
Nor demagogues tear it in tatters.
But still may it flourish and push,
Thro' vetos and all such tough cases,
Till railroads are common as brush,
And the nobs are as sleek as your faces.

Conrad thinks that the "The Hoosier" was intended as an anti-nullification poem -- a slap at the slave-owning caste south of the Ohio River, and a self-mocking espousal of the poor but free residents to the north. If any reader can shed further light on the history involved, please do.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Three prime winter beer styles: Imperial Stout, Barley Wine, Doppelbock.

A menacing queue forms before me.

It is comprised of well-intentioned nutritionists, crusading physicians, profiteering diet planners and congenital killjoys. In this nastiest of personal nightmares, they have gathered to demand that I eschew the habits of my expansive past, to convert, to see the light … to eat and drink “right.”

Stubborn and unrepentant, I point defiantly to the thermometer. It’s not a fit night out for man or beast; Louisville is cold. Salade Nicoise, gazpacho, watermelon and corn on the cob all seem inadequate. Waxen imitation veggies need not apply.

No! I want food to warm the bones, to arouse the slumbering genes of my ancestors on the steppes and in the forest, those enduring and resourceful people who during winter reached for the pickled vegetables, delved into cellar for potatoes, beets and onions, and cracked open stocks of salted beef and fish.

I demand the hearty ingredients for soups, stews, goulash, cabbage rolls and casseroles.

Furthermore, I want beer styles to match them! Beer that is cool, not cold; strong, not puny; challenging, not simple.

Winter provides the most suitable conditions for sampling and studying the heavyweight classics that have come to us from the various Old World brewing cultures and in turn have been embraced and redefined by America’s innovative microbrewers.

Among these are multi-faceted imperial stouts, deeply affecting barley wines, and big, brawny German “double” bocks. Not only do these beer styles provide ample warming for bodies iced and chilled in the great outdoors, but they also stick to the food that sticks to your bones when it matters most.

Imperial Stout.

Just as exuberantly hoppy India Pale Ale evolved along the shipping lanes from Great Britain to toasty colonial India, robust and jet-black Imperial Stout was adopted by English brewers and traders as the ideal export beverage for cooler northerly markets in Russia and the port cities of the Baltic Sea.

Highly alcoholic, displaying intensely roasted and deeply fruity flavors, Imperial Stout is perhaps the only style of beer that can be termed “thick as oil” without a trace of exaggeration.

Originally top-fermented, Imperial Stout spawned numerous imitators all along the shores of the blustery, chilly Baltic, the survivors of which are often designated as Porters and are brewed as lager beers, eliminating ale’s fruity esters but retaining the style’s signature full-bore intensity.

It is often recommended that Imperial Stout accompany desserts, but I favor staples of Northern European and Scandinavian cuisine, especially fish like smoked salmon or mackerel, served with buttered new potatoes with dill, and perhaps an opening course of pickled vegetables.

Samuel Smith Imperial Stout remains the best readily available English example, but for an incredible glimpse into the tastes of the past, search for A. Le Coq Double Imperial Stout – elusive, expensive, but singular. Bell’s Expedition Stout (Michigan) and Stone Imperial Stout (California) are fine American versions. Louisville’s Bluegrass Brewing Company annually releases Imperial Stout, and the New Albanian Brewing Company in New Albany brews Solidarity, a textbook Baltic-style Porter.

Barley Wine.

In archaic Brit-speak, the term “barley wine” refers rather vaguely to a style of high-gravity ale with an alcoholic strength approaching that of wine. Interpretations faithful to the English ale making tradition are noteworthy for their complex maltiness, tending toward flavors like caramel, biscuit and sherry.

English examples are less alcoholic and not as aggressive as American microbrewed adaptations, which in addition to mouth-filling malt usually emphasize sticky and citrusy West Coast-style hops, and as a result are massive in every respect. Unlike most other beers, bottled Barley Wine can be aged and its vintages compared and contrasted.

Barley Wines are wintertime fireplace ales writ large, served at cellar temperature, for contemplative armchair sipping with a captivating novel, perhaps some mixed nuts, certainly a cheese plate, and even a cigar closer to the end of the session so as to permit a proper appreciation of the genre.

In ascending order of strength, look for Old Nick (U.K.), Anchor Old Foghorn and Sierra Nevada Bigfoot (both from California), and Rogue Old Crustacean (Oregon). Our most renowned local example is Bluegrass Brewing Company’s Bearded Pat’s Barley Wine, a two-time gold medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival, and a feather in the wool cap of brewer David Pierce.


Literally, a utilitarian meal in a glass, devised by monks and brewed at a high gravity with ample residual sugars for a sweet, full-bodied, belly-filling beverage that joyfully lessened hunger pangs during the Lenten fast. “Double bock” should have a burnished and rich brown color, a clean but complex malt flavor, and just enough noble German hops for balance.

By Bavarian tradition, Doppelbocks bear the “ -ator” suffix (in honor of Paulaner’s pioneering commercial entry, Salvator), and often are represented visually by a goat.

At around 7% abv, the style is less alcoholic than others in the same range, but more filling than most, and mankind has yet to create a sweetly malty beer that is better suited to accompany Bavarian-style Schweinehaxe, or pork knuckle, with its crisply chewy rind. It is the lager of choice for steaming tureens of bean, cabbage or sauerkraut soup, with or without pork.

Originals versions from the Old World are easy to find, among them Salvator and Spaten Optimator, both from Munich, and the glorious Celebrator, which is brewed by a smaller, family-owned brewery in Aying, located just south of the Bavarian metropolis.

(A version of the preceding originally was published in Food & Dining Magazine)

Monday, December 12, 2005

A digression on Belgian cafe culture.

According to all accounts pointing the way to the narrow lane called Kemelstraat in delicious Bruges, Belgium, our quartet of American beer hunters was fortunate just to find seats in the jammed front room of ‘t Brugs Beertje, a specialty beer café.

It was 1995, and we had made the Little Bruges Bear an absolute priority. It seemed appropriate for the café to be so absurdly tiny, but what it lacked in floor space it more than made up for with an enormous beer list!

Granted, there were only a half-dozen drafts to go with the four rickety wooden stools at the short bar. However, the bottled beer menu ran for page after page, subdivided into lists of beers by provincial origin, and noting each beer’s particular style.

There were ruddy brown ales from East Flanders and tart reds from West Flanders; earthy Saisons and individualistic Wallonian ales from the French-speaking southeast; funky spontaneously-fermented Gueuzes and citrusy Wits; Trappist ales and the Abbey styles that mimic them; and, as a bonus, stored in endless rows behind the bar, signature glassware for most of the 200 bottled choices available.

The walls were plastered with antique metal beer signs and associated breweriana, and when the noise of conversation ebbed, soothing classical music could be heard playing.

Staggered by the options, I selected Rochefort 10, widely considered the finest of all Trappist ales. It was unavailable locally at the time, and remains rare today.

Our understated but attentive server, Luc, who we later came to know well, shook his head sadly. Suddenly I was gripped with fear that the café’s stock of Rochefort was depleted.

Luc asked, “Will you be having more than one beer this evening?”

“Yes, of course,” I replied.

“Then I cannot serve you the Rochefort. You will not be able to taste the beers that come after it. You must save it for the end.”

Learning is always fun when good teachers are close by. Luc’s advice was heeded, and the session-closing Rochefort 10 was suitably rich, dark, cosmic, revelatory and unconditional.


As befits a nation that seeks to unite contrasting populations of Dutch and French speakers, Belgium often is a study in opposites.

Belgium famously suffered as victim during two World Wars even as its own colonial abuses were perpetuated in the Congo. It has produced the inventor of the saxophone, without whom there could have been no Coltrane, as well as the inane action star, Jean-Claude Damme.

Belgium has achieved culinary acclaim, whether at simple street corner kiosks where potatoes are perfectly deep-fried as nowhere else and accompanied with any imaginable sauce save ketchup, and at classic Continental restaurants serving escargot, endives, Carbonade Flamande and steaming pots of fresh mussels.

Belgium supports the most crazily diverse and creative local brewing culture to be found in Europe, and also hosts the world’s largest mass-market lager brewing conglomerate: AmBev, maker of Stella Artois, which unfortunately is the only beer remembered by most American visitors to Belgium.

I’ve made eight excursions to Belgium since that first night of coursework at ‘t Brugs Beertje. These priceless idylls have been spent traversing the country by bus, train, automobile, and best of all, bicycle; from the dikes, canals and well-ordered brick homes of Flanders to the woods and hills of the Ardennes; enjoying food and drink in industrial cities and countryside villages; and one essential aspect of the Belgian beer drinking experience stands out in my mind.

The institution of the café.

As Europe’s beer drinking venues go, Belgian cafes surely are the least appreciated. While most Americans grasp the traditional beer hall regimen offered by Bavarians, and understand the basic format of the Anglo-Irish public house, few have been exposed to the subtle wonders of the Belgian café.

Like bars and pubs everywhere, Belgian cafés are meeting places for friends and serve as extended living rooms for locals. Unlike bars and pubs elsewhere, it’s usually possible to sample at least a half-dozen markedly different beer styles (not beer “brands”) in a typical Belgian café, even the ones that don’t emphasize beer.

To order a spritzy, deceptive Duvel (“Devil”) or a fruit-infused Lindemans is to receive the bottle accompanied by a glass designed expressly for it. Sometimes the glasses are little more than advertising vehicles, but often at least the shape and design of the glass is intended to complement and enhance the beer, as in the case of a wide rimmed goblet for aromatic Trappist and Abbey-style ales like Chimay, Orval or Corsendonk.

At most Belgian cafés, a small portion of peanuts or crunchy snacks, and sometimes even cheese cubes or herring slices, will come with each beer order. These are free of charge. When the time comes for something a bit more substantial, you’ll generally be given a menu card and cautioned that there are no “meals,” only “snacks.”

These “snacks” can be substantial, ranging from bread, sausage plates and cheese platters (don’t forget the celery salt) to grilled sandwiches like the ubiquitous Croque Monsieur (ham and cheese) and Croque Madame (the same with a fried egg on top), all the way to spaghetti and lasagna. These light meals, or heavy snacks, suffice more often than not, especially if the cafe’s beer list keeps the enthusiast rooted to his seat.

At least some of this reverie can be duplicated at home.

First and foremost, just say “no” to Stella Artois.

Procure a copy of Tim Webb’s “Good Beer Guide to Belgium & Holland,” which local booksellers can order for you. Use Webb’s text as an aid while prowling the shelves of area retailers, looking for examples of classic Belgian ale styles, and checking to see if there’s glassware for sale. A basic arsenal of goblets and flutes need not be comprehensive.

A bowl of peanuts, and you’re ready.

(The preceding piece by the Curmudgeon was originally published in Food & Dining Magazine)

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Beer Chronicles -- a Louisville-based beer site.

I met Kenny and Shannon today for the first time when they came into Rich O's and ordered a bottle of Alaskan Smoked Porter (2005) to share. It turns out that they have a web site devoted to beer: Beer Chronicles.

Inspired, a drank one of the 22-oz Alaskans after completing my time on the floor. It was a valuable reminder that Bamberg area beechwood isn't the only wood in the forest.

It's great that they've enjoyed their visits to Rich O's and bonded with Steve along the way. Check out their site when you have time.

Friday, December 09, 2005

To have and to use five great beers.

Aristotle, a wine drinker, once observed, “With regard to excellence, it is not enough to know, but we must try to have and use it."

When it comes to excellence in the art of brewing, availability is the chief factor standing between misty-eyed reminisces of Yorkshire cask ales and stopping by a Louisville area pub to “have and use” a pint of favored elixir.

Here, alphabetically presented, are five great beers. All are personal favorites, and while they don’t begin to tell the full story of beer’s stylistic diversity, they can be found locally.

BBC APA (American Pale Ale), (Louisville, Kentucky)

The best microbrewed beer brewed in Louisville is BBC APA, as crafted by its original brewer, David Pierce, at the BBC Brewing Company downtown on the corner of Main & Clay.

Dave’s signature APA originally was formulated along the lines of an English-style pale ale, but with American hops and yeast. He says, “Eventually Centennial hops became available, and I stayed with them because they give a more crisp bite.”

Fusing elements of different brewing traditions into a delicious and innovative hybrid is the defining glory of contemporary American microbrewing. APA’s medium body is malty and slightly toasty, as with English ales, but the hop kick is all-American, with some citrus notes and a long, satisfying bitterness at the end.

BBC APA holds its own with spicy ethnic food, and is my all-time favorite with chicken wings.

Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout (Ft. Bragg, California)

Although the celebrated Guinness Draft Stout remains one of the world’s great light-bodied, low-gravity ales, it doesn’t make this list.

Heresy? Perhaps, but my preference now lies with the heaviest member of the roasted, coffee-like stout family: Imperial Stout.

This strong ale, along with its more elusive cousin, Baltic Porter, packs a full deck of flavors into one glass, and varies widely in strength (from low abv’s in the 7% range all the way to 11%, and sometimes beyond). Viscosity always is high, and mouth-feel broad. Imperial Stouts can be intensely fruity, roasted, sweet and dry all in the course of a single serving.

Old Rasputin’s name harkens to the ale’s original Tsarist export market, and conjures black and mysterious imagery appropriate to the style. It is the best all-purpose example of Imperial Stout available regularly, although Samuel Smith Imperial Stout is slightly truer to the style’s English origins.

Other excellent, seasonal interpretations are Avery “The Czar,” Bell’s Expedition and Stone Imperial Stout. All the preceding are well suited for sampling with kippers, smoked oysters and pickled vegetables.

Pilsner Urquell (Plzen, Czech Republic)

Repeat after Stone Brewing Company (maker of Arrogant Bastard Ale): “I am not a fizzy yellow beer drinking ninny here under false pretenses.”

Indeed, somewhere around 90% of the world’s beer drinkers drink mass-produced industrial lager, most of it serviceable in a pinch but profoundly uninteresting.

Regrettably, today’s omnipresent golden lager often is referred to as “pilsner,” which is akin to ground beef being represented as filet mignon.

Fortunately, the yardstick lager that inaugurated the worldwide pilsner-style craze 170 years ago still is brewed in the Czech city of Plzen, hence the Pilsner name.

Pilsner Urquell is richly golden in color, firm but not heavy in body, and with notable dollops of Czech hop flavor, aroma and bitterness. It still displays far more character than its legion of imitators, and is a versatile choice with food, standing especially well alongside fresh vegetables, chicken and fish.

Rochefort 10 (near Rochefort, Belgium)

A monk may devote his entire life exploring the relationship between man and God. At six certified Trappist monastery breweries in Belgium, the brothers expand this cosmic search to the science of fermentation, keeping venerable brewing traditions alive.

Among the products of these six breweries, Chimay Blue and Westmalle Tripel are best known. Achel’s signature Kluis is relatively new, and Westvletern 12 remains reverent but is seldom seen outside Belgium.

Orval’s rural setting is stunning, and its unique hop and yeast character tempting, but the highest achievement of Belgian Trappist brewing is Rochefort 10, which issues from the reclusive Abbaye Notre-Dame de St. Remy near the Ardennes town of Rochefort.

My cherished Rochefort 10 weighs in at 11.3% abv, and lawnmower beer it isn’t, pouring creamy brownish-black, with mellow, deeply fruity esters and subtle hints of nuts. The flavor is pure silk, full-bodied, tasting perhaps of semi-sweet chocolate, with an alcohol note or two suggesting licorice liqueur.

Rochefort 10 is contemplative and refined. Drink it for dessert.

Schlenkerla Marzen (Bamberg, Germany)

Alarmingly, beer consumption has been on the decline in Germany for many years, and in the beer-crazy Franconia region, home to 500 or more breweries as recently as the 1980’s, the number has dropped to just above 300 in 2005.

But in Bamberg, the jewel of Franconia, the number of breweries recently has risen from nine to ten – for a city of 75,000!

My favorite of them all is Schlenkerla Marzen, brewed by the Brauerei Heller Trum, the family business of my friend Matthias Trum, and served from real wooden barrels in their venerable tavern in the heart of Bamberg’s Old Town.

To be labeled “Marzen” implies grounding in the Oktoberfest-style amber lager tradition, but this version incorporates a tradition at least as old as the harvest fest itself, namely the use of an open beechwood fire to smoke the barley after malting, which still is done inside the Heller Trum brewery.

The handcrafted result is a fine German amber lager beer that tastes -- well, smoky, and although enduringly fine by the half-liter, is positively joyful with any strongly flavored foods like grilled meats, game, sausages or piquant beer cheese.

First published in Food & Dining Magazine (2005).

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Borscht, espresso, cigars, music, beer ... what am I missing?

Ingredients for a successful night spent indoors, looking out at the area's first snowfall of the winter, include ...

... a steaming cauldron of Russian-style borscht ...

... Italian espresso, and a machine to make it correctly ...

... and 27 of your closest friends.

To make the borscht, I used 3 beets, 2 potatoes, 2 onions, 3 carrots, 3 celery sticks, 2 cans of stewed tomatoes, most of a head of cabbage, dashes of red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, and a stock composed of 3 vegetarian bouillon cubes dissolved in 3 half-liter bottles of Spezial smoked lager.

It's simple; substitute beer for any liquid in a recipe, and invariably enjoy the results. Smoked beer is perfect for hearty stews, but different modes of matching are required depending on the dish. Accompanying the borscht was a crusty loaf of sourdough bread from Ermin's (Main Street, New Albany).

The espresso machine is fully automatic. We bought it from Tommie Mudd at Caffe Classico in Louisville; my friends Ed and Jon since have done the same.

Not pictured above are the cigars (Bolivar, La Gloria Cubana) I purchased today at Kaiser's Tobacco in New Albany, or the Shostakovich string quartets playing in the background as I write.

You may have guessed that all 27 "friends" weren't opened and consumed at the same time. In truth, I'd been saving empties that have been sampled since late September, rationalizing that I might write reviews of them, but this hasn't happened. A group photo seemed appropriate before they enter the recycling bin.

Favorites? Bell's Batch 7000, Great Divide's Hibernation and Oak Aged Yeti, Anchor's annual Christmas ale, Jolly Pumpkin's La Roja and Luciernaga ... well, perhaps it would be easier to list the ones I didn't like.

( )

Coming up this evening: Thiriez Amber, a French farmhouse ale.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Pittsburgh Brewing Co., Iron City beer maker, files Chapter 11.

The story is in the Pittsburgh Business Times, which notes that this is the second time in ten years that the company has sought bankruptcy protection.

What has happened to Falls City?

I couldn't find it at Pittsburgh Brewing's web site.

Monday, December 05, 2005

From 2003: The Potable Curmudgeon offers “malternatives” to Charlie Papazian “on Ice.”

I continue to sort through the archives in search of items that predate the Potable Curmudgeon’s blog, and to post those that aren’t too dated to provoke some measure of discussion.

Shortly after the following was written, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms took a renewed interest in the “malternative” phenomenon, a genre of alcoholic soft drinks that includes products like Smirnoff Ice and various “hard” lemonades, and began an overdue reconsideration of its regulations amid the anguished howling of a drinks industry intent on defending a cherished loophole to the last lobbyist.

All in all, growth of the category has slowed since the heady days of its inception around the turn of the century. Malternatives have not been given a separate category at the Great American Beer Festival. Now, as then, my business does not sell these bastardized cocktails for children, but admittedly, we continue to sell Woodchuck ciders … and sometimes I question the difference (or lack thereof), but that's a discussion for another day.


Charlie Papazian, founder of the American Homebrewers Association, was performing in Indianapolis the other day. I thought about going, if for no other reason than to ask him how he walks without a spine, and to imagine his response.

Charlie, Charlie, Charlie … like the rock star seeking to “reconnect” with his audience by playing “intimate” clubs (not coincidentally, the only venues that will him), he now stoops to reconquer the local markets that once nourished his career and that of the AHA by touring the country and appearing at brewpubs and homebrewing supply houses.

And so it came to pass that Charlie was only a two-hour drive away from New Albany, but there was a “Hogan’s Heroes” marathon on TV-Land. I decided to stay home.

Admittedly, my less-than-reverential attitude about a legitimate pioneer and icon of American homebrewing and beer appreciation will strike the wrong note for some readers.

So be it, but permit me one honest disclaimer: I sincerely respect Charlie Papazian for his homebrewing acumen and his essential how-to books. In truth, he has guided thousands of curious beer drinkers in their quest for good beer, and offered them a glimpse of the promised land where IPAs and Doppelbocks reign, and supermarket thirty-packs of aluminum-clad swill are distant, painful memories.

Unfortunately, that’s as far as Charlie’s magic goes, at least with me. The same qualities of laid-back temperament that make his message appealing in do-it-yourself circles, famously embodied by his “relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew” mantra, readily doom his opinions to irrelevance when applied to the real world that lies outside his garage brewery.

Some might say that my criticism of Charlie is unfair, that I expect too much from someone who at heart is a homebrewing evangelical, more at home in the backyard than the national stage.

Perhaps, but we mustn’t forget that the decision to venture into the world was made by Charlie himself. He created the whole Colorado-based beer and brewing empire currently grouped under the Association of Brewers umbrella, and has regarded it as a personal fiefdom. It has been good for him, and he good for it.

Regrettably, and delicately stated, there have been certain compromises along the way, and an accompanying erosion of moral authority on the part of a man who did so much for all of us in the beginning.

Our first hint of this soon-to-become-legendary Papazianesque dichotomy came in 1994, when it appeared that Anheuser-Busch would be permitted to swallow the Czech Republic’s Budvar brewery and thus “resolve” the longstanding copyright disagreements between the St. Louis-based liquid manufacturing plant and the classic Bohemian lager brewery that to this very day protects and enriches whatever conceptual meaning the word “Budweiser” still retains following a century of sustained abuse at the hands of the prime architect of the global swillocracy.

Asked by myself and the FOSSILS homebrewing club to join the crusade against Anheuser-Busch’s cynical maneuvering, Charlie ignominiously opted out – and just as quickly forbade the publication of his words to that effect.

Indeed, it was like Toto drawing back the curtain on the otherwise flaccid “wizard” when it became apparent that Charlie would do or say nothing to offend Anheuser-Busch or any of the other major industrial brewers, those benevolent despots who sponsor the annual Great American Beer Festival, but spend the rest of their business years conspiring to destroy everything the GABF stands for.

To be sure, the GABF as a tool of megabrewer appeasement wasn’t and isn’t anything new. One look at the many “made for the swill merchants” categories confirms this, which brings me to the most recent of Charlie’s missteps, as reported by David Pierce, who peruses various forums for brewers on line when he isn’t toiling to make Louisville safe for good beer.

The on-line debate in question concerned the Great American Beer Festival and whether “malternative” beverages would be accepted for judging and given their own category. It appears that they will not have a separate category, and will continue to be accepted in the existing “experimental beer” section, but it was an entertaining thread nonetheless.

For the uninitiated, such “malternatives” (or “alcopops,” as they’re referred to in the U.K.) include atrocities like Zima as well as the many newly emerging liquor-branded malt beverages (Smirnoff Ice, Skye, etc) being rushed into the marketplace by megabrewers eager to milk the latest hot trends in marketing to teenagers.

Wait – did I say that aloud? Marketing to teenagers? Why, don’t all of the industrial brewers routinely deny such these charges and invest millions of dollars in programs to discourage and deter underage drinking?

Yes, they do, and they also invest millions of dollars for the development of alcoholic beverages that taste like soda pop, not beer … and we are assured that these malternative beverages are being marketed to adults, not children … and the way you can be sure that a megabrewer is lying when he tells you all this is that his lips are moving.

The point is this: The profit-at-any-human-cost motives of the industrial swill merchants are so shabbily and obviously transparent that it seems almost assured that their “malternative” beverages will be the next great lightning rod that brings the legislative wrath of the health fascists, mad mothers and do-gooders crashing down on all our heads, not just those of the biggest companies who have the lawyers and the money to fight a rear-guard action until their research and development team creates the next “use” for beer.

And wandering airily among the wreckage will be Charlie Papazian, one organizational hand in the pockets of Megaswill, Inc., and another making soothing gestures designed to convince us to relax, don’t worry, and have another dose of punishment brought about by the monoliths to whom he remains beholden.

For the record – and if Charlie doesn’t mind being quoted – here are a few of his comments with respect to the GABF and “malternative” beverages:

" … if the GABF were to decide what is an alcopop and what isn't; what kinds of fermented malt beverages do we allow and which ones do we disallow - then who would dare risk the liability and potential of being perceived as restricting trade. Lawyers drool at these kinds of opportunities … "

" … Like it or not, for now malt based alcoholic fruit flavored beverages are part of the beer market … "

" … remember OTHERS despised, snickered, laughed, criticized what we call the innovations of the early craft brewers. They said it wasn't good for the image of beer. It's not what they wanted beer to become … "

" … our present policies keep the GABF open to the extraordinary creativity of all brewers. I think we all agree that brewers will never totally agree on these kinds of issues. But the GABF shouldn't be policing the industry. The suggested policing is not enforceable, has legal implications and would entail great expense ... "

Simply stated, Charlie’s shuck and jive never changes. Following the e-mail posting from which I’ve quoted, his sycophants rushed to support the freshly enunciated writ, thus further cheapening the GABF while bringing smiles to the suits in the corporate boardrooms of the industrial brewers:

“It would be a shame to see the very diversity that has fueled this industry for the last many years diminish based on an arbitrary opinion of whether a given product segment is legitimate or not. The market has been and will continue to be the ultimate judge for all products made by brewers in this country.”

-- Chris Swersey, PPBT Manager - GABF and World Beer Cup

Alice, welcome to Wonderland. Alcopops are the same as lambics, ethical standards are lawsuits waiting to happen, the cow jumped over the moon, and in their rush to appease the swill merchants, Charlie and Chris both seem to forget that if their newfound passivity and trust in the veracity of “the market” had been the rule in the early days of the homebrewing movement and the microbrewing revolution, neither would have occurred.

In 1992, the market here in New Albany rather emphatically has said, “swill!”

Should I have trusted the “market”? Was it a waste of time for me to ignore the “market,” to install extra draft lines, to sell the best beer possible at a fair price while striving always to educate and reshape the “market”?

Should I have been afraid of offending the Bud, Miller and Coors distributors whose sales indicated a good understanding of the “market’s” requirements?

Of course not.

Here’s an interesting hypothetical proposition: If Anheuser-Busch were to approach Charlie and Chris, checkbook in hand, with the offer to fully finance the Great American Beer Festival, put an end to shortfalls, purchase whatever the festival needs to survive and prosper … only one small thing, it must now be called the Anheuser-Busch Great American Beer Festival … how long would it take for the offer to be refused?

Or would it be refused? After all, to refuse Anheuser-Busch is to jilt 50% of the “market.”

By coincidence, I recently picked up an old issue of “zymurgy” in which Charlie ruminated about how far the homebrewing and beer appreciation movement had come since those early days high in Colorado. He fondly recalled his solemn induction into a Belgian beer society, which previously had accepted only one other American: August Busch III, known ‘round these parts as Three Sticks, whose financial support of the Great American Beer Festival in Denver makes about as much sense as Saddam Hussein hosting a human rights conference in Basra.

The differences between Charlie and I couldn’t be illuminated any more clearly than by my noting that if Three Sticks ever were to pass through the portals of Rich O’s, I would unhesitatingly spit in his general direction … and that’s the printable part of my reaction. Paraphrasing Groucho Marx: I wouldn’t want to join any club that would have Three Sticks as a member.

Charlie, are you there?

It’s time for you to stand up and be counted. You can no longer shirk the responsibility of the position that you created for yourself. Leaders lead, or they get out of the way … and as for the policy of appeasement, we all remember Neville Chamberlain’s place in history, don’t we?

Sunday, December 04, 2005

This 4-Barrel Brewhouse Kills Swill Merchants.

Regular readers will recall my November 1st “encore presentation” of a 2003 Potable Curmudgeon piece entitled, A-B's Stephen J. Burrows Will Rot in Hell.

It was followed a month later with this. Two years have passed, and yet it remains curiously, perhaps even sadly, relevant.


A country is never as poor as when it seems filled with riches.
-- Laozi.

In last month’s Potable Curmudgeon, I had harsh words for Stephen J. Burrows, who is Anheuser-Busch’s top executive in the monolithic company’s international division.

In the process of expressing my eternal contempt for Burrows and everything he stands for, a litany that included a comparison of the top-ranking carbonated urine executive to propagandists like Iraq’s “Comical” Ali, I let slip a brief criticism of the Bush administration.

Spin in the eye of the beholder.

Several readers objected to this, and I can’t say that I was surprised they noticed. According to one complainant, my reference to the current “Haliburton War” in Iraq fell outside the context of an article otherwise purporting to be about beer, and as such, was deemed irrelevant.

I must disagree. My objection to Stephen J. Burrows and all those of his ilk owes to their active participation in a form of economic imperialism that I find repugnant in whatever context.

By this I mean that it isn’t enough for Burrows and Anheuser-Busch to sell products in a truly open market. Rather, the man and the company are dedicated to using all means at their disposal to alter and influence that market, through tactics both fair and foul.

Because no examples of the “fair” spring immediately to mind, I’ll cite a prime example of the “foul.”

The unceasing trademark litigation deployed by Anheuser-Busch to harass and cripple the Czech Budvar brewery is a modern variant of siege warfare, designed to erode the smaller brewery’s will to carry on with the struggle of protecting its appellation of origin.

Big business does it in one way, and big government does it in another, and the difference lies primarily in degree. Take their name, take their petroleum … it’s the same game.

I really, really hate suits.

For many years, people close to me have commented on my visceral aversion to the “suits” that inhabit the corporate world. The corporate “business culture” engendered by these aesthetically empty noggins seems to enduringly captivate the nation, but in fact it is tragic to see the word culture used in this way.

America’s business may well be business, yet business for the sake of business surely is the ultimate moral vacancy, as well as the most tangible symbol of the rampant Philistinism that has come to define the modern American nation.

These corporate suits need not be in the beer business to arouse the righteous anger of the Curmudgeon. As a prominent local example, I cite David Novak, chieftain of the major Kentuckiana employer formerly known as Tri-Con, now Yum! Brands.

For those not already repelled by the thought, Yum! Brands is composed of fast food outlets KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and several forgettable others. Our subservient Louisville media outlets regularly shower Novak with fawning adulation of the sort that hasn’t been in vogue since Joe Stalin occupied the Kremlin. The Louisville Courier-Journal all but advocates that Novak’s portrait be prominently displayed in every bank lobby, classroom and public urinal.

Unfortunately, no one has been able to make clear why the public should worship Novak, a man whose major achievement has been to change the name of his company from the vaguely idiotic Tri-Con to the decidedly repulsive Yum!, a word that describes the corporation’s cookie-cutter food about as well as the purloined term “Pilsner” describes the abominable Miller Lite.

Which is to say, not at all.

The renaming and re-launching of Novak’s corporation a few years back was accompanied by a public rally of employees. They dutifully cheered the furry-capped, taco-slinger of a commissar, embarrassingly lofted banners far cheesier than any pie peddled by Pizza Hut, and mugged inanely for the cameras before retreating to their desks to ponder the similarities between themselves and the participants in Pyongyang’s May Day parade.

Like I said: Big business does it in one way, and big government does it in another, and the difference lies primarily in degree.

A beaming Novak basked in the adulation, then retreated to his million-dollar estate to dine on food that will never see the microwaves and deep fryers of his fast-food empire.

Offenses against taste and decency like these would entitle Novak to imprisonment, or worse, in any civilized country that has yet to barter its soul to the glories of chicken parts dished up with mind-numbing apathy by pockmarked teenagers.

It’s a Faustian transaction that Novak, along with Stephen J. Burrows, advocates each and every day. Burrows, Novak and their legions of suits are economic imperialists, and the American public, dozing peacefully somewhere in the middle of its surround-sound, Jerry Springer-fed, Natural Light-induced terminal coma, can do little more than buy another lottery ticket and ponder the merits of NASCAR.

The legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie adorned his guitar with the words: “This machine kills fascists.”

In those days, the fascists were the enemy. Maybe they should be again.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Remembering Max Allen.

We're drinking my friend to the end of a brief episode

So Make it one for my baby

And one more for the road

"One for My Baby," by Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen.

Max Allen’s name comes up during bar conversations far more often than you’d think, given that he’s been dead for five years, and very few Rich O’s regulars ever met him.

As they say, Max’s memory lives on, and deservedly so. Maybe the reason people continue to talk about him is that I won’t let them forget.

For much of his working life, Maxwell E. Allen, Jr., was a professional bartender. He was best known for his quarter-century stint at the legendary Hasenour’s Restaurant at Barret and Oak in Louisville, which was followed by several years – a “coda” of sorts -- at the Seelbach Hotel downtown.

It is much the understatement to refer to Max as a “people person,” because he was as jovial and friendly a man as you’d be likely to meet, and he was seldom seen in public without a broad smile on his face.

For many years, Max maintained a membership in the Fermenters of Special Southern Indiana Libations Society (FOSSILS), our local homebrewing and beer appreciation club, but he didn’t attend very many FOSSILS meetings owing to his work schedule.

One that he did is fondly remembered. In 1994, the late Virgil Hosier, a former employee of Ackerman’s, New Albany’s last operational brewery (closed in 1937), came to a FOSSILS meeting to talk about his job on the bottling line. Max had the foresight to bring a cassette tape recorder, and the recording of Virgil’s talk later was transcribed in Conrad Selles’s and Peter Guetig’s “Louisville Breweries” book, where it survives for posterity.

It is entirely appropriate that this memorable contribution to FOSSILS lore pertained to history, for Max was a member of Louisville’s Filson Club, a collector of books about beverage alcohol in general and Kentucky bourbon in particular, and a walking encyclopedia of local legend and lore.

After a long and gradual decline, Hasenour’s went out of business, and Max moved to the Seelbach for the final chapter in his professional life. In the twilight of his career, there seems to have been a dawning awareness on the part of observers, including many in the Louisville media, that he represented something that was fast disappearing: Skill and excellence in the traditional art of bartending, practiced by a true craftsman for whom bartending was not a temporary stop on the way to something better, but a respectable vocation in and of itself.

Max was featured in more than one Louisville Courier-Journal article on drinks, and for good reason: He knew the liquors and the recipes, and he did them right.

He did not indulge in embarrassing Globetrotter-style “extreme” routines of bottle spinning and juggling. Rather, the fundamental things applied. Max kept his bar clean and stocked -- not just with alcohols and mixers, but with any item that he felt his customers might need: A needle and thread, toiletries, neckties and road maps.

With him behind the bar was an index card file of customers, including names, preferences, wives, children, birthdays and anniversaries.

In every sense of the word, Max was a pro’s pro, and he remained one as the bar business inevitably began to reflect the assembly-line prerequisites of the modern consumer economy, eschewing its slower-paced, traditional role as restful sanctuary for a frenetic place in the cookie-cutter service sector.

Max Allen was the friendly, efficient, helpful face behind the bar, but not just any bar. His was the imperial “high street” American bar of the post-war zenith, an era that now is gone, and with it Max and so many others of his generation.

Rest in Peace, my friend.

Thursday, December 01, 2005


You'll just have to read this to believe it:


Thanks to Bob Rutherford for the link.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Welcome to Nail City -- an excellent weekend adventure in Wheeling, WV, circa autumn, 2001.

Ever wondered where the church pews in Rich O's were procured? Here's the story.


Welcome to Nail City.

Heavily laden with provisions, Syd Lewison and I exited the package store, where we had been directed because it had the “best” selection in town. It certainly wasn’t the best section of town, and when a raggedly dressed man approached us, a number of potential shakedown scenarios, none of them particularly savory, flashed through my mind.

“Excuse me, sir … ”

The possibilities loomed like the dreaded sub-sections on an income tax return. Did I have some spare change? A cigarette, perhaps? Would I care to purchase a pharmaceutical from his vast selection, to medicate? Or was he a representative of Watchtowers-R-Us?

What’s the frequency, Kenneth?

“We Feature Gallo, Bartles & Jaymes, and Other Fine Wines.”

Fine wines? It must be true; hell, it was right there in the Yellow Pages for Wheeling, West Virginia, which was another five minutes east from our vantage point at a motel near St. Clairesville, Ohio. It was a late autumn weekend, it was deer season, and as soon as we had made it 50 miles east of Columbus, the interstate highway became littered with road kill and filled bumper to bumper with pickup trucks hauling uncovered carcasses.

Venison is fine by me, but I’m not a hunter, and although cigars are an important part of my life, this was no pilgrimage to the former home of Marsh-Wheeling cigars (ironically, they’re now made in Indiana).

We had one, and only one, reason to drive from Louisville to Wheeling: Business, or to be more specific, the business of capitalizing on the misfortune of certain elderly residents of the city.

Apparently, some of the old folks in question had died, while others had become too infirm to climb the double staircases leading to the second-floor sanctuary of their Pentecostal church. The church had relocated to smaller, more level quarters elsewhere in Wheeling, and a local used furniture dealer was conducting a sale of fixtures prior to the building being put on the block.

Among the items being sold were the church’s venerable oak pews, some six feet and other nine feet long, which were estimated by our intermediary to be more than 60 years old. Our mission in Wheeling was to relieve the congregation of a baker’s dozen of these pews. On Sunday morning, we were slated to meet the broker at the church, load the liberated pews into a Ryder rental truck, and haul them back to New Albany for use in Rich O’s – another charismatic place where the patrons speak in tongues and gargle snake oil.

However, all this had yet to happen. It wasn’t even 1:00 p.m. on Saturday. We’d checked into our hotel and were searching the yellow pages, not quite in the mood for fine wines, but wondering what the local beer scene was like in Wheeling.

We were about to learn that good beer in Wheeling is about as plentiful as strip clubs (or, for that matter, strip steaks) are in Kabul.

Act II, in which the outsider pauses to assist the eager natives.

“Excuse me, please, sir, but can one of you read?”

The man waved a sheet of paper inches from my skull as I paused to reflect that it had been quite some time since such an easy question had been asked of me. But what was the catch?

Suspicious yet intrigued, wary but accommodating, I decided to acknowledge that yes, since at least the mid-1960s, during some point in the LBJ administration, I have been able to read – quite well, actually.

“Thank you, sir,” he said, “because if you can help me read this, maybe I can get this (expletive deleted, but referring to a procreative female dog) to shut up.”

He motioned to an indifferent and perfectly quiet female waiting in the shadows by the pay phone. She rolled her eyes toward the darkening firmament, seemingly less afraid of potential violence from her boyfriend than of yet another worthless evening of futility and trash talk.

Seconds later, Tom Henderson emerged from the store toting his evening’s refreshment. Right alongside him was my illiterate friend’s best buddy, a veritable Sancho Panza, who announced that he had invested in bottled water for himself and a 40-ouncer for my questioner, just as instructed … and here’s the change to prove it.

Examining the man’s sheet of paper, I saw immediately that it was a “VIP club” circular for the dog track located down the street. He pointed at the bottom of the page, where there were three coupons, each for a complimentary slot machine pull. Visibly triumphant at his good fortune, as he had managed to find someone literate, pliant and reasonably sober so late in the afternoon – it obviously was a novel experience – he asked if the three coupons could be used, all at once, before midnight that day.

“Well, it doesn’t say you can’t use them all tonight,” I said, studying the various expiration dates emblazoned on the coupons, “so good luck, and have a good life.”

If you will look on the map …

Wheeling is located between Ohio and Pennsylvania in that strange angular panhandle of West Virginia that points northward not unlike a bony, outstretched middle finger. Much of the city lies on the left bank of the Ohio River, but the central district spills over onto an island in the river, where we were directed to buy beer and to counsel colorful local illiterates.

Wooded hills define the physical character of the area. Towns are wedged into the flat bottomlands between the heights. To look at Wheeling on a road map is to see an urban area seemingly one mile wide and twelve miles long, poured between the river to the west and a long ridge to the east.

At one time, Wheeling was the “Gateway to the West,” the later an industrial powerhouse, producing steel, iron, nails, glass, cigars and even beer, the latter inspiring these words from a history of the area written in 1879:

To historically review the dawn or subsequent development of man's appreciation for ale and beer, would be no sinecure achievement, suffice it to say that since the arrival of the earliest pioneers in this section, brewing, in some shape, has ever held its own. But the nutritious and palatable blending of malt and hops found little difficulty in fascinating the popular taste, even our grand-fathers were free to extol the merits of "John Barleycorn."

Contrary to enduring stereotypes of West Virginia as the hillbilly type of place where squirrel brains stubbornly remain on the collective dinner table, Wheeling has enjoyed a diverse cultural history engendered by the immigrants who came to work in the city’s factories. The last names of three pro sports luminaries born just across the river in the state of Ohio, John Havlicek and the brothers Niekro, attest to this, as does the presence of Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish congregations to spice the backwoods fundamentalist broth.

But the pendulum never stops swinging. It was well into the 20th century before an expedience borne of economic decline compelled local movers and shakers to reconnect with Wheeling’s southern heritage, and thus with some of the cultural themes that West Virginia’s original secession from secessionist Virginia had been intended to forestall. Nowadays, outsiders are lured with country music and the relaxed ambience of the South, even though the largely outdated industrial landscape appears suspiciously northern in character.

On Saturday afternoon, driving east on the interstate, we crossed into downtown Wheeling while admiring the city’s graceful, ancient long-span suspension bridge, the world’s oldest, which dates from pre-Civil War times.

Stopping briefly to make final arrangements for the truck, I was struck by the surplus of aging and generally derelict red brick warehouses, victims of the downturn that has plagued Rust Belt cities like Wheeling for decades. They’re the sort of building that microbrewery start-ups so eagerly sought in the 1990’s, before that particular industry suffered its own leveling off.

Downtown, in the vicinity of the approaches to the suspension bridge and the epicenter of attempted tourism, several of the city’s old commercial buildings -- the banks and corporate headquarters of another age – have been renovated. One of them, at 1400 Main Street, has become the Wheeling Artisan Center. On the building’s upper floors are housed West Virginia arts and crafts shops, the folksy milieu of the south, and the staple attraction for blue hair bus tours and visiting groups, which the local visitor’s bureau directs to the River City Ale Works on the first floor, which is where we were seated at the bar wondering if this was as good as it gets in a place like Wheeling.

Comrade, can I see your ration coupon?

For me to have a good life, it meant a desperate effort to remain upwind from my interrogator. Besides, the conversation seemed to have gone about as far as it could, so I started to turn toward the sanctuary offered by our rental car, but he wasn’t finished with me quite yet.

“Fine, thanks, but Jesus Christ, I don’t want to use the damn coupons – look, I just want to cash these in and get back the money for drinks. Does it say I can do that?”

Pondering the theory and practice of loopholes, I caught the scents of burning leaves and cold river water. Traffic hummed on the adjacent interstate. Elsewhere on Wheeling Island, West Virginia’s state high school football championship game would be starting later in the evening.

Exactly what do people drink at dog tracks, anyway?

Why? Why? Why?

In truth, we had been forewarned. Before departing Louisville, I visited and searched for brewpubs and beer bars in Wheeling. There were none of the latter, and to put it charitably, the reviews for the only listed brewpub, River City Ale Works, were mixed.

I learned that the original occupant of the space was called Nail City, an establishment billed as West Virginia’s largest brewpub. When asked about this, the bartender informed us that the current River City Ale Works was the only brewpub in West Virginia, making it the largest by default.

Unfortunately, this isn’t true; there is at least one other brewpub operating in the state, but we had no access to floor space measurements, and it seemed that the first of many Brewpub Warning Signs was about to be raised: When you spend valuable moments debating ephemera rather than the merits of the beer on offer, you might be headed for trouble.

Should we stay or should we go? Alternatives seemed few in number, other than hitting the road for nearby Pittsburgh, a scant hour up the interstate, but which of us would drive?

We elected to stay at Wheeling’s largest and only brewpub, the reward for which was an admittedly fine meal, as well as fine views of the shapely, athletic female bartender who tried her best to be helpful. However, for aficionados of brewpubs, even great food and buxom hired hands are small consolation when the beer is unimpressive.

Here, then, are a few warning signs to consider during a brewpub visit. They are specific to Wheeling’s River City Ale Works as experienced during our visit, but equally applicable, in varying forms, to similar establishments.

You become worried when:

A brewpub’s dining menu lists at least 75 different meals, but only six house beers are described on the table tents.

The six everyday beers listed on the table tents aren’t available.

The two beers that are available, neither of which are listed on the table tents, are written on a chalkboard half-obscured by Miller Lite point-of-sale materials.

The two house beers are competent, if unspectacular, but they’re served ice-cold in frozen glasses.

For every glass of house beer the bartender pours, another glass goes cascading down the drains as foam is “poured off.”

The bartender explains that the reason for the discrepancy between the six beers listed on the table tents and the chalkboard’s two like this: “Well, we didn’t brew for a while, but now we’re brewing again.”

You ask why this is the case, and she replies, “Because the brewery was broke.”

The brewpub offers “happy hour” pricing, but a large and readily visible sign reminds customers that the special prices do not apply to the two house-brewed beers that are available.

The preceding bears repeating: A brewpub offers “happy hour” pricing for mass- market swill, not its own beer.

You look around the bar, and no one else is drinking the house beer. You conclude that you must be strange for insisting to do so, speculating that your interest in beer is greater than that of the management, and wondering why such a place even bothers maintaining a brewery when so little is done to nurture and support it.

The overwhelming evidence available to us was that it might be a long time before craft beer becomes a priority in Wheeling, notwithstanding the freedom once enjoyed by the city’s residents to “extol the merits of John Barleycorn." Eyes affixed to the plunging neckline of our bartender, we asked for directions to the best package liquor store with the best selection in the city.

“That’d be Cut Rate over on Wheeling Island. We all go there. Go across the suspension bridge, fourth stop sign, turn right … “

Beer and circus.

Like the set pieces at Madame Tussaud’s, the tableau outside the liquor store was frozen in time. Myself, Syd Lewison and Tom Henderson, each with paper sacks of cold beer in hand, and the sun setting to the west, behind our hotel in Ohio. Standing before us was a man with a sheet of paper. His pal’s arm was extended in an almost Biblical offering of refreshment. Just off stage, silently, drearily, there reposed a woman.

In the fading light, the fine print on the coupons was way too small, and my patience far too gone, for me to bother trying to read it.

“It doesn’t say you can’t,” I offered. “Go for it.”

Thusly reassured, the man thanked me a final time and accepted the bottle of malt liquor. The three forlorn bearers of dog track “drink” tickets shuffled off toward their ultimate redemption, to the greyhounds, to the southernmost extremity of Wheeling Island.

Come to think of it, the woman hadn’t said a word the whole time … and all because I could read.

Editor’s note:
For abundant historical information on Wheeling, as well as numerous photographs both old and new, go to …