Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Package store swill pricing and baby steps of old.

Earlier this evening, we were enjoying frozen sugar concoctions at Zesto's on Charlestown Road when I looked across the street at the Copper Still sign and saw that a 30-pack of Natural Light is going for $11.99, plus sales tax.

Given that Natural Light is in a wholesale price tier below Budweiser and Bud Light, which we used to sell for $8.49 per 24-pack at the now defunct Scoreboard Liquors in New Albany, this price seems quite high to me.

What it really means is that I've lost all touch with the price of swill, and haven't the foggiest which price is good and which isn't - although, of course, no cerebral exercise is necessary to determine that $5 or $6 for ballpark swill is an outrage.

The average price of a 20-ounce pint of draft beer at Rich O's is now around $4.25, and we don't sell swill.

Well, we do sell Corona, which is currently priced at $4.50 for a 12-oz bottle ... and that's just to see how much someone will pay for bad beer.

I need some amusement, you know.

In 13 years out of the package store biz, I've lost all sense of proportion, and I'm not complaining at all.

Here are links for two previous NA Confidential stories pertaining to the liquor store daze (1983-1992):

Remembering Jim Creech (April 29, 2005)
Package store veterans day (November 11, 2004)

Finally, here are the best liquor stores in New Albany when it comes to finding a good beer:

Bridge Liquors
Old Mill Wine & Spirit Shoppe

Things have changed since the late Jim Creech let me "have" a door in the walk-in cooler to put some of the "fancy" beers.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

It was twenty years ago today ... and 48 hours to Istanbul.

My European travel adventures began in 1985, and now, for the first time, I'm writing about them. On May 23, 1985, I was on the road to Turkey.

Read the article at NA Confidential:
It was twenty years ago today ... and 48 hours to Istanbul

Previously, part one: It was twenty years ago today ...

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Purported Jeffersonville microbrewery likely figment of Tubby's imagination.

The Curmudgeon told you so.

On April 12, the Jeffersonville Evening News reported that Glenn “Tubby” Muncy was at it again, spinning tall tales and duping gullible newspapermen about a microbrewery supposedly set to open at the downtown Jeffersonville building that housed his previous business, Tubby’s Pizza, which burned under mysterious circumstances several years back.

Microbrewery planned for former restaurant site,” by City Editor Larry Thomas.

Thomas guilelessly swallowed Tubby’s absurd claim to be a certified “master brewer,” but as the Curmudgeon quickly pointed out, Tubby’s name is nowhere to be found at the web site of trained master brewers.

Tubby, the sequel: As much a "master brewer" as the Curmudgeon is a neuro-surgeon.”

Six weeks later, Thomas reveals that liens against Tubby’s building are approximately quintuple its value, that these liens are not the result of a mistake (as Tubby insisted in April), and that there has been so little evidence of progress in rehabilitating the building that the city of Jeffersonville is considering eminent domain to seize it.

Properties' progress faulted,” by Larry Thomas.

There are no surprises in any of this, are there?

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Schlenkerla & the Brauerei Heller Trum: Upholding traditions in Bamberg.

From spring, 2004.

On April 1, 2003, Matthias Trum assumed control of his family’s business, becoming the sixth male in his family to take the reins since the mid-1800’s.

Stories involving dynastic succession are of potential interest regardless of the time or place, but when the setting is Bamberg, Germany, a city that is home to nine breweries, and when the Trum family business is one of them – Brauerei Heller Trum, more commonly known as Schlenkerla, a classic brewery and pub enterprise - then special attention is warranted.

Especially if the observer - me - is a beer aficionado hopelessly smitten with the lovely city in general and its fine beer in particular.

Bamberg Redux.
In personal terms, my experience with Bamberg dates to 1991, when I visited the Franconian city for the first time. Even before that, there was unmistakable infatuation. I’d read accounts of the city’s beer culture written by British beer writer Michael Jackson and salivated over his written descriptions of Schlenkerla’s trademark smoked lager.

Long before I tasted it, I knew that Schlenkerla would be an unquestioned, enduring favorite, and my first sip amply confirmed it.

Subsequent encounters with Schlenkerla have not failed to entice and impress, and these half-dozen trips since the first one have confirmed not only that Bamberg is the place to go for smoked lager, an elegant retro-rarity in the world of beer, but furthermore, that the city simply has no serious competition as the finest setting for beer drinking in all of Germany.

The beer is sublime, and available in as many styles and variations as there are taste buds, but the truly priceless aspect of any visit to Bamberg emanates from the opportunity, one unfortunately threatened by the pace of modern life, to comprehensively experience a culture seemingly crafted from only the very best of beer’s numerous virtues.

From the savory and always reasonably priced German cuisine accompanying and complementing my beverage of choice to the city’s many traditional indoor and outdoor drinking and dining venues, Bamberg affords the enhancement of gustatory and olfactory pleasures in a way that larger cities cannot match.

Bamberg’s 70,000 residents enjoy the products of the city’s nine remaining breweries (down from as many as two dozen a century ago), and also have the opportunity to sample the selected wares of more than a few of the 100-plus breweries in a fifty-mile radius. Many of these breweries are located in charming small towns tucked away in wooded hills and pastoral valleys radiating outward from Bamberg.

Bamberg and its outlying Franconian environs are to German beer what the Amazon Basin is to species of flora and fauna: A diverse and unfathomable “zymurgo-system,” and a treasure trove of species, many of which are doomed to extinction owing to the relentless march of consumerism and mass-marketing.

In truth, few of these beers equal the mighty Schlenkerla Marzen, the Trum family’s everyday (that’s right, everyday) beer. It is a full-bodied amber lager, and it would be delicious even if it did not burst upon the palate with an assertively smoky flavor deriving from beechwood kilning in the brewery’s micro-malting – a traditional method itself now largely extinct.

Traditions to uphold.
The very survival and continued prosperity of Bamberg’s beer and brewing culture are best viewed as questions of tradition versus modernity, and all those who are exploring the equation, from brewer to tavern keeper to drinking customer, are answering the question in their own way by the choices they make.

Not least among them is Matthias Trum, who comes down squarely on the side of tradition … most of the time.

Matthias tells the story of his grandmother’s tenure stewarding the family’s lively, well-trodden pub and restaurant, and of her ironclad view of propriety. There was to be no kissing between unmarried men and women customers (her reaction to openly gay couples can be inferred), and men wearing short pants (other than lederhosen) were to be neither acknowledged nor served.

“That part of tradition can be relaxed,” laughed Matthias last July as we savored Marzens and a platter of sausages in the section of the tavern known as God’s Corner, where a statue of Jesus looks out on the usually crowded room.

Other time-tested rules have not changed: The three “C’s” of Coca-Cola, coffee, and chips (French fries) are not available. “You can buy them anywhere in Bamberg,” noted Matthias, “but not when you come to Schlenkerla. Here, we offer a traditional menu.”

In similar fashion, the brewery (located several beautiful hillside blocks away from the tavern), observes old methods whenever possible. Almost no breweries have retained their maltings, but Schlenkerla continues to employ a maltster, who smokes the barley and prepares it for brewing.

Beer destined for the tavern is kegged in wooden barrels, themselves crafted by one of the last remaining coopers in Bavaria. The barrels must be kept in a damp environment to preserve the wood. When they are hoisted onto the counter and tapped, the beer flows straight out by gravity feed, almost like cask ale except that the yeast isn’t still alive.

Two sizes of barrel are filled, because when closing time draws near, the smaller barrel can be tapped so that no beer goes flat and is wasted overnight.

During our tour of the brewery, Matthias led my friends Kim Andersen, Craig Somers, Pavel Borovich and I into lagering cellars beneath the brewery. The cellars are part of a network of underground passageways extending throughout hill-studded Bamberg.

We were offered samples of cool, delicious Urbock, the rich, higher-gravity seasonal variant of smoked lager, and instructed in the uses of the mysterious Spundetapparat.

How Matthias managed to convince us to return to the earth’s surface remains a mystery to me.

Preparing for success.
It can be seen that a proper respect for tradition is the norm in the Schlenkerla pub and brewery, but Matthias prepared for his career with thoroughly modern diligence after assuring his parents at an early age that he fully intended to go into the family business.

The same grandmother who rejected lip contact out of wedlock and shunned the tourist’s Bermudas heartily encouraged the notion that Matthias should first attend university for a degree in business and economics before immersion in beer and brewing.

Afterwards, Matthias studied at the prestigious Weihenstephan brewing institute near Munich and served an apprenticeship at Zum Uerige, the most traditional of Dusseldorf’s Altbier brewpubs. He then worked the family brewery from top to bottom alongside the maltster, brewer and forklift operator.

When German Trum passed the baton to his son Matthias and retired from the business that he had directed for three decades, he did so without qualification, and has not visited the brewery since. It would appear that capable hands run in the family.

Bamberg’s breweries cope.
Contemporary Germany is no different from any other Western consumer society. Its citizens are forever being offered “new and improved” beverages, foods, entertainment options and lifestyle choices.

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

British beer writer John Conen, a close observer of the Bamberg brewing scene, says that the hemorrhaging has slowed of late, but to return to the analogy of disappearing species in the Amazon, the continued attrition of these small, distinctive breweries bodes ill for the future of German brewing.

I’m not speaking of German brewing in the sense of it functioning on its largest level as a multi-national business enterprise, for there are no shortage of large brewing companies actively pursuing acquisition, consolidation and the transformation of beer into a standardized supermarket commodity in Germany just as in the rest of the world.

Rather, I’m lamenting the inevitable decline of brewing in the artistic and cultural senses, for it is in these milieus that individualistic, highly localized attitudes and methods, once lost, can never be regained.

Bamberg’s nine breweries deal with problems of survival in varying, generally complementary ways.

Kaiserdom, the largest and least interesting to me, seeks to maintain a niche export market and positions itself as up-market “premium” at home. By contrast, Maisel brews the working man’s Pils and Weizen.

In the neighborhood known as Wunderberg, arguably Bamberg’s Brooklyn, Mahr’s and Keesman occupy opposite sides of the street and both make great beer. It is alleged by certain observers that the workers patronize Mahr’s and the bosses visit Keesman, but despite long hours spent at both establishments, I cannot verify it. However, I can attest to the lip-smacking beers that both produce.

Close to the Rhine-Main-Danube canal on Obere-Konigstrasse, Fassla is a brewpub and guesthouse that unashamedly caters to the working man. It I more “real” than Anheuser-Busch ever will be. Directly across the street, Spezial brews the city’s gentler, second-rated smoked lager and operates the finest beer garden (Spezial Keller, located a few kilometers away on Stephansberg hill) in Bamberg, and maybe in all of Germany.

Klosterbrau parlays its old town location, monastic religious connotations and rich textbook dark lagers into a steady trade with tourist and local alike. Greifenklau possesses yet another lovely hilltop garden with a view, and runs a big hotel that is favored by tour groups.

And then, there’s Schlenkerla. The Trum family resides above their pub, so there are no overnight rooms, but even without an outdoor garden for warm weather seating, the pub itself is jewel enough. It oozes history. Half of its current floor plan originally was part of an adjacent monastery, and the location deep in the epicenter of Bamberg’s old town is exemplary. Insofar as tourists can stomach real, unalloyed beer, Schlenkerla draws them, but at the Stammtisch (i.e., reserved table) are clustered regulars who have been drinking in the same spot since long before Matthias’s birth.

Small amounts of Schlenkerla’s beer reach aficionados throughout the world, and there are off-premise accounts in Bamberg and its environs, but by far most of it is consumed at the bustling tavern, lovingly drawn one pint at a time from the real wooden barrel perched atop a venerable metal-topped counter, and consumed alongside smoked ham, horseradish and pungent beer cheese.

Time spent with Matthias Trum convinces me that Schlenkerla will remain a safe house amidst the destructive tsunamis of the warring multinational brewing conglomerates, and for this alone I would go back to Bamberg.

How I manage to convince myself to return to Indiana remains a mystery to me … but somehow, each time, I do.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Last call (this time) for Founders Red's Rye on draft?

Currently at Rich O's, perhaps the final keg (for a while) of Founders Red's Rye is on tap.

Someone remarked that it'd be fine with them if Red's Rye were on tap all of the time, and I concur from the standpoint of "red" being part of the ale's name, which means that rank amateurs seeking Killian's might select the Founders red ale strictly because of the colorful promise, but find it not at all tasteless like the dyed alcopop offered by MolsonCoors.

Of course, Red's Rye is a fine beer that stands on its own right. It's just fun to dupe the Liteweights every now and then.

Founders home page

Previous curmudgeonly tasting of Red's Rye

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Brasserie Thiriez: Bieres de Garde as you've never experienced them.

French Flanders, the lowland region of Northern France that borders on Belgium, is the home of Bieres de Garde (beers to keep, implying ones to be laid down until needed).

These “country ales” are at once traditional and modern, having all but died out in the early-to-mid 20th century before being revived, usually with only sketchy references upon which to base contemporary reformulations.

Bieres de Garde surely are among the least understood and appreciated of formal beer styles. I fell in love with them one otherwise uneventful day in the mid-1990’s -- but not while visiting northern France, a momentous event that occurred later during our first bicycles & beer journey in 2000.

Rather, I was cooking at home, and chose St. Amand (Brasserie Castelain – currently in 2005, unavailable to us) to accompany a plate of pasta with garlic-laden marinara sauce, accompanied by crusty bread.

The rich, earthy, amber French ale met my spicy Italian seasonings and formed a perfect match, one I’ve never forgotten.

As Bieres de Garde have evolved, French brewers have blended barley malts in creative ways that yield complex malt character. Many of these ales are cold-conditioned (lagered), a process that rounds the sharper edges of the traditional ale flavor profile.

For the most part, the use of hops has been restrained, indicating a commitment to a balanced malt profile without appreciable bitterness, hop flavor or hop aroma, but as we are about to see, this isn’t always the case.

Recently we received cases of three pleasingly atypical Bieres de Garde, all brewed by Brasserie Thiriez in Esquelbecq, France, a town located not too far away from Cassel, home of the world-classic beer café l'Estaminet 'T Kasteelhof.

These three ales from Thiriez add a whole new dimension to the reliable aim of Bieres de Garde, as they are enticingly hopped to go along with the complex malt, adding a mouthwatering “session” component to the mix.

Owner and brewer Daniel Thiriez, an escapee from the corporate world, studied brewing in Belgium before starting his own brewing operation. It would seem that his chosen mission is to elevate the hop from its role as insurer of balance to one of co-starring status with the signature maltiness of Bieres de Garde.

More power to him.

Thiriez Blonde
French farmhouse ale for the pilsner drinker? It’s a hazy, pale shade of gold, with far more spicy hop in the nose than malt, and medium-bodied at best. Hop flavor is up front, along with a lemony hint, and a lingering bitterness remains behind to demand the next sip. As with its sister ales, a dense and gorgeous head yields to clinging lacework from start to finish.

Thiriez Amber
French farmhouse ale for the Altbier drinker? Lightly hazy, amber/brown, pours brilliantly, with malt aromatics turned up a notch, and hop nose slightly more muted. My choice to accompany the mixed platter of local meats, pates and cheeses served at the Kasteelhof, as it bears more of a resemblance to the traditional style, albeit with more hop bitterness and flavor.

Thiriez Xxtra
French farmhouse ale for the unrepentant hophead? The hops in question hail from Kent, in England, as part of a European brewing cooperation program. As with the preceding examples, the crisp freshness of the hop character verges on the revelatory – there’s just more of it here, and it’s hard to imagine the aggressiveness being more immediate were the ale to be sampled at the brewery. Xxtra obviously is comparable to the elusive hoppy Belgian ales like XX Bitter and Poperings Hommel Bier, but it is lower in alcohol content, and with a musky, funky hop presence in all respects.

All three are currently available at Rich O’s, in 750 ml crown cap bottles (have a knife ready to assist in peeling away the neck covering), at $12.50 in house, $9.00 for carry-out.

These excellent ales would be recommended irrespective of national origin, but I like them even more precisely because they’re French, and indicative of a creative willingness to expand already delicious boundaries of a beer and brewing culture unfairly ignored by many American beer aficionados.

For further reading:
Shelton Brothers web page for Thiriez

La Brasserie Artisanale d'Esquelbecq (in French)

Monday, May 16, 2005

A fine old "old ale" on a Sunday evening.

During the course of a day spent digging through the Rich O's beer stocks in search of vintages for culling at the sale Saturday (if you missed it, a few bottles are left and can be purchased by appointment with me), I found a treasure trove of five-year-old Adam and Fred from the Hair of the Dog Brewery in Portland, Oregon.

The bottles had been pulled, unlabeled, straight from the bottling line by our good friend Phil "Biscuit" Timperman, who at the time was helping at the brewery. Now he's gainfully employed at the Horse Brass Pub, and should become mayor of Portland with a decade.

At last night's FOSSILS meeting, I poured nips of the 10% abv Adam, and it was exquisite, with a nutty aroma and palate, not at all heavy in the mouth, and overall possessing qualities you'd expect from a liqueur, not a beer.

Rest assured, the Fred will be next, but needless to say - these aren't for sale.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

It was twenty years ago today ...

My European travel adventures began on this date in 1985, when I boarded a plane in Chicago and jetted off into the unknown.

Read the article at NA Confidential:

It was twenty years ago today ...

Monday, May 09, 2005

Coors Light -- always better the second time around.

My wife Diana, who is not a beer drinker and takes little interest in the scene, as it were, has been watching NBA playoff games.

Last week, she asked why television advertisements for America’s “Big Three” multinational megabrewers invariably insult the intelligence (a term I use guardedly) of their own loyal consumers, depicting them variously as leering lechers, bumbling simpletons, and graceless bobble-heads.

It’s a very good question, and I’ll leave it to the marketing geniuses to explain why contempt for the target clientele is such a recurring feature of megabrewery advertising on television.

My current favorite in this genre is the Coors Light commercial that shows the “bus boy” clearing unfinished bottles of carbonated alco-pop from barroom tables, and gleefully escaping into the alley with his bus tub of booty.

Isn’t this fairly grotesque? Was he rummaging through the dumpsters for abandoned White Castles before concocting the “bus boy” disguise? Is this MolsonCoors’s idea of a target demographic?

Granted, in the early “Wild, Wild West” era of Sportstime Pizza, we had a customer who would wander around the room asking people if they were finished with their bottles, and drinking the leftovers on the spot (sometimes without permission, with interesting consequences) … but I doubt that Mountain Man Dave would make a good poster boy for the drinking-in-moderation campaigns that megabreweries must finance as a type of tax for otherwise using their television ads to target minors.

Bear in mind that “bottle babies” never drink the whole beer, and when asked to explain this phenomenon, generally are unable to do so. Perhaps the beer gets warm, or there’s too much spittle and debris in the bottom, or it is part of a mating ritual as yet unrevealed by “Wild Kingdom.”

Isn’t Coors Light sufficiently wretched without being mixed with the body fluids of a stranger?

This sells beer?

Sunday, May 08, 2005

A Cinco with mayo on the side: Multicultural appreciation in New Albany.

Last Friday, May 6, I had this conversation with Richard, who is one of our employees at the pub.

Roger: How have we sold this many bottles of Red Stripe? There was a case in here just a few days ago, and now only four bottles are left.

Richard: Well, yesterday was Cinco de Mayo.

Roger: But that's a Mexican holiday, not Jamaican.

Richard: You know that, and I know that ...

For the record, a bottle of Corona costs $4.50, and a Red Stripe is $4.25, although I'll have to raise the Red Stripe if it keeps selling as it has lately.

Next year we'll offer May 5 specials on Red Stripe and jerk pork pizza, and play reggae music all day.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Three cheers: Bard's Tale brings beer back to the Celiacs.

Sorghum is a tropical cereal grass. Buckwheat is an Asian fruit occasionally used by craft brewers, as in Rogue Buckwheat Ale. Corn and rice are brewing adjuncts with bad reputations in beer aficionado circles owing to their frequent use in insipid mass-market lagers

Such substances would not be expected to inspire reverence on the part of microbrew fans who espouse the “barley, hops, water and yeast” mantra of the German beer purity law, but for those suffering from Celiac Disease, barley is the ultimate in deal-breakers.

The same is true for rye, wheat, oats and spelt – precisely the ingredients, along with barley, that are used to brew “beer” as we know it, almost all of which contain gluten … and gluten is the problem for Celiacs.

I didn’t know the first thing about Celiac Disease until two years ago, when Kelly Vogt, a longtime Rich O’s customer and lover of German wheat ale, disclosed that he could no longer drink beer owing to his recently diagnosed condition.

We discussed the prospect of the New Albanian Brewing Company brewing a beer without gluten, but concluded that even if we could determine how to do it, there would be no guarantee that a brewhouse as small as ours could be made free of barley residue, and besides, we had no plans to bottle.

Later, Kelly made me aware of a company formed by two Celiacs for the express purpose of devising recipes and brewing gluten-free beer. It took Bard’s Tale a few years to research, develop and capitalize, but the brewery’s first product now is on the market: Bard’s Tale Dragon’s Gold. Next up will be Bard's Tale Tavern Ale.

Cavalier Distributing in Indianapolis has just started carrying Bard’s Tale for the Indiana market. Surely a Kentucky distributor will be soon to follow.

In order to best test the brewer’s decision to use light lager style as a point of comparison, for Dragon’s Gold, I subjected the 12-oz bottle to the freezer, and ice crystals had formed when I popped the cap and poured aggressively into an Imperial pint glass.

An excellent and long-lasting head was created, and noticeable lace clung to the glass throughout.

The aroma is unique and not entirely “clean” in the lager sense, striking me as reminiscent of mild “butter rum” character, as in the Lifesaver candies of youth.

The beer is slightly fuller than expected, approaching medium-bodied, and the flavor, though cleaner than the aroma, has sweetness similar to that associated with the use of corn. There is a hint of nuttiness. The palate is balanced by what tastes like continental hops -- it could use a few more.

I permitted it to warm, tasted the remainder, and found it much the same as before. Overall, the brewery’s claim that Dragon’s Gold is comparable but not necessarily superior to craft beers in general seems reasonable. There's more classic ale character than lager, but I'm sure that "lager" helps with the marketing effort.

When it comes to serving beer to the 1.5 million Americans who have Celiac Disease, Dragon's Gold is a place to start, and a good one; it is better than I been led to anticipate, given that the light lager style is not my preference.

Furthermoe, it’s fun to consider the unique flavor profile provided by these gluten-free ingredients and to project other styles that might lend themselves to the product line. A citrusy, hoppy pale ale, perhaps?

I bought three cases and will have Bard's Tale Dragon's Gold stocked and priced by opening on Friday, May 6. The next delivery from Cavalier will be two weeks from now, and I'd be happy to consult with anyone on a pre-order basis.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

May beer events at Rich O's.

For those readers who are not on the mailing list for Publicanista!, the official newsletter of Rich O's Public House and the New Albanian Brewing Company, here are a few approaching dates of importance.

You can sign up for the newsletter at the NABC web site.

Wednesday, May 4
Gravity Head Appreciation Day. Any remaining listed Gravity Head beers on draft will be half-price, as will Gravity Head t-shirts.

Saturday, May 14
Ballast Reduction/Vintage/Close-Out bottled beer sale at Rich O’s, 11:00 a.m. All proceeds go toward signage for the brewery. If I'm able to get an exact accounting of the stock that will be up for grabs, it will be posted here.

Sunday, May 15
The FOSSILS homebrewing and beer appreciation club's annual breweriana sale, 11:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Dealers will be vending pre-prohibition to contemporary breweriana, local items (Falls City, Fehr's, Oertel's '92, BBC), antique bottles, advertising from major microbreweries, beer signs, mirrors, lighted signs, glassware, trays, clocks, lamps and books. Beer will be sold starting at 1:00 p.m., and there will be soup or stew for lunch. Following the sale, the regular FOSSILS meeting will be held.

Click here for directions. Dealer space is available for $15/table - contact Kira Tash.