Monday, August 01, 2005

PC in GA: Beers in Savannah.

Savannah, Georgia is a very old city that was freshly immortalized a decade ago in a book I didn’t read and a subsequent movie I failed to watch, which means that among the multitudes of tourists visiting the city during a typical week in July, my mind may have been the only one uncluttered by preconceived notions of dark mysteries and sepulchral sculptures – not to mention Forrest-you-know-who, munching chocolates on a park bench and making you have bad dreams about LBJ whether you choose to or not.

Blessed with a thriving and diversified economy, and afflicted with an exurb as sprawling as any, Savannah’s downtown historical preservation district is justly celebrated. Small and symmetrical for ridiculously easy navigation, and yet sufficiently large to allow getting a bit lost if the mood strikes, the district’s streets are tailor-made for wandering from pub to espresso bar to tidy oak-canopied square oozing genteel charm and Spanish moss.

Arriving in town at midday on Sunday, we reported immediately to the Planter’s Inn facing Reynolds Square, checked in, and parked the car in the adjacent garage, where it remained until departure on Tuesday morning.

The desk clerk’s recommendation for a quick midday bite was to walk three blocks to the City Market, an ongoing urban renewal effort undoubtedly intended to disperse the crowds that descend upon the waterfront River Street. There we found Vinnie Van Go Go’s, an above-average pizza joint, and dined sumptuously on various combos of sun-dried tomatoes, pineapple, anchovies and jalapeno peppers.

Savannah Fest from the Moon River brewpub was listed as being on tap at the pizzeria, but upon inquiring, I learned that the same outfit’s summer special Wheezy Heifer had been substituted for the lager. Given my mixed feelings about wheat ales, I opted for water to smooth the way down to the bottom for my beloved little fishies.

It makes me tingle just thinking about it.

Later that evening, Moon River Brewing Company was selected as the venue for an evening meal and sampling. Savannah’s only brewpub is located on Bay Street, just a short stroll and a twenty-foot drop (by stairs) from River Street and nightly party festivities roughly comparable to the arena license ambience of Louisville’s Fourth Street Live. Moon River is just far enough away from the young River Street crowd to be relaxed, but it, too, can issue you a plastic cup for taking beer out into the street, which is legal in the city.

Moon River occupies the ground floor of a former hotel that dates to the early 1800’s, and has been remodeled several times since. Décor is predominantly wood, with some pastel wall tints and pleasant artwork on display. Mercifully unlike Hilton Head Brewing Company, point-of-sale materials for mass-market swill are not in garish, overbearing evidence, and although two famous brands of alcoholic soda pop are sold, they’re neither promoted heavily nor priced competitively.

My house-brewed sampler tray included:

Wild Wacky Wit
A Belgian-style wheat ale in the Hoegaarden tradition, with a good balance of coriander and citrus, but less than optimal head retention. A good effort, though admittedly not my favorite style unless I’m riding a bicycle in Belgium.

Moon Light
A reduced-character version of the Fest, pale and inoffensive, with hints of fruity esters that transcend the style, but the central point is this: Moon River has a light beer, so there’s no sense in accepting less than full mark-up on bottles mass-market swill. Kudos for that attitude.

Savannah Fest Bier
Not overly hoppy, and hinting broadly at a Dortmunder style, it tasted even better with Viet-Thai cuisine the following night at the
Saigon restaurant on Broughton Street.

Swamp Fox India Pale Ale
Clocking in at 7% is the pick of the Moon River litter, namesake of the legendary Revolutionary War guerilla fighter that the hip-hop generation has never heard of, and not at all ironically, hip-hoppiest beer in Savannah.

The Captain Porter
Restrained English character, drinking lighter than its 6% strength, with plenty of chocolate notes, and overall, good Anglo-Porter flavor.

Wheezy Heifer
A veritable unfiltered American-style wheat textbook on the many problems associated with such an abominable style. Certainly there is wheat character in abundance, but no balancing esters or phenols as in the Belgian or German varieties, and with a very blunt, harsh finish. Fruit slices would have to be added to save this beer … please, don’t get me started.

Gallery Espresso Stout
Thin-bodied stout with assertive, pronounced espresso flavor owing to “cold infusion” of beans from the
Gallery Espresso café on Bull Street (across from Six Pence Pub). “Okay,” said the Missus, “but I’d need sugar and cream.”

Mai-Rye Bock
Warming pale bock, albeit a medium-bodied one at best, with the clean lager character suitably nailed, but the requisite malt richness lacking. Still, quite enjoyable at 7.6%.

Swamp Fox IPA won the coin-flip competition to stand alongside a steak and baked potato, beating out Mai-Rye by a handful of delicious hop cones.

All things considered, Moon River was an excellent experience for us, and I recommend it, but do be forewarned that the brewpub’s menu refers to the American Civil War as the “war of northern aggression,” and speaking for myself alone, I find this sort of sentiment patently unamusing.

Amid numerous walks and rest stops in recognition of the steadily escalating heat index, Monday afforded time for lunch at Kevin Barry’s Pub on River Street.

It is claimed by one or another authority that Savannah hosts the second or third largest St. Patrick’s Day festival in the United States, and perhaps that or another on-line poll has confirmed Kevin Barry’s to be one of the Top Ten Irish pubs in America, and be all this as it may, it’s a fine establishment, anyway, though perhaps touched by a smidgen of the blarney when it comes to ratings and rankings.

The pub’s home in a 200-year-old cotton warehouse is exemplary, with then-ancient virgin timbers supporting the ceiling and ballast stones from ships used in the walls. The paper placeholder menus tell the story of Irish literary figures like Brendan Behan, George Bernard Shaw and James Joyce, though not of the ranking Irish bard, Bono.

It’s the usual lineup of Irish ales at Kevin Barry’s, and in this there’s no disgrace at all, because Guinness is a refreshing quaffer of unmatched thirst-quenching character on a sultry day (or night, or morning), and at $4.00 for an Imperial pint, relatively inexpensive. Oddly, contract-brewed Charleston Brown Ale is the same price for a 16-oz mixer. The Reuben is good, and there’s live Hibernian tunes every night for a nominal $2.00 cover charge.

Our final pub stop on Monday night was the Six Pence Pub on Bull Street, which is spotted quite easily by using the red phone booth outside as a point of reference. A branch of the Mellow Mushroom pizza chain lies just around the corner, and Gallery Espresso is a short stumble away. Six Pence features reasonably priced English pub grub, i.e., Shepherd’s Pie and the like, has a short draft list that’s good, and generally speaking, boasts a comfortable, chatty, neighborhood feel.

A final nocturnal glance at a stately handful of Savannah’s squares, fountains and statuary, sans plastic go-cups, brought the Georgia portion of the trip to a close.

Next time: Charleston, South Carolina.

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