Wednesday, September 28, 2005

On cask ale and how to enjoy more of it, more often.

Three years ago, our friend Steve Crull constructed a gleaming wooden cabinet, to which was affixed a reconditioned beer engine made available to us by the eminent B. United beer importing company, and just like that, we went into the business of serving cask-conditioned ale.

But only occasionally.

Conditioning ale in the cask and pouring it by using a hand pump are quintessentially (and traditional) English ways of doing things, with the basic idea being to take a slightly unfinished and still living product and to artfully prepare it for serving at the best time, with light carbonation achieved naturally.

As with most art forms, opinions vary widely as to the most “authentic” way of achieving cask ale’s potential. Remembering that in the historical context, cask conditioning evolved as a response to local logistics, drinker preferences and prevailing social and environmental conditions in the British Isles, it should suffice to say that from the beginning, our choices in this particular yeast culture war have been dictated by unique circumstance.

B. United was among the first importers to devise an effective way to ship the ordinarily fragile and lower-gravity cask ales from the U.K. to the states, by necessity confining most of the transport to cold weather months. Later, local breweries, including our own, began to experiment with casks of the house ales, perhaps not with the exact methodology of the classic British brewers, but with considerably better odds in terms of freshness.

Assuming the cask ales we’ve chosen were fit and ready for serving, and having no means of maintaining the optimal cellar temperature, we’ve chosen to keep our casks slightly chilled with an improvised jacket of freezer gel ice packs, and this has proven to be workable.

Almost always we’ve tapped the casks on Fridays, and tried to vend all the beer in just one night, the reason for this haste being that when you serve a cask in the purist’s preferred fashion – there’s a hole in the top of the keg, and a line to the handle leading from a tap at the bottom – you’re pumping air from the room into the firkin with each pull, guaranteeing that within a short period of time, the ale will flatten.

Real ale’s true believers say that this process of oxidization is in fact a good thing, and that with tasting experience, drinkers will learn to appreciate the differences in flavor as the ale pours over a period of days. Personally, I don’t doubt it at all, wishing only that I had more time to inhabit British pubs and learn these valuable lessons.

Professionally, given that there are few things in life that can be known with absolute certainty, and one of these things is that New Albany is not located in Great Britain, I simply note that given the expense of importing casks and the necessity of lowering the profit margin so as to offer cask ale at a reasonable price, such deterioration of quality – noble or otherwise – and the predictable wastage in its wake, both make it difficult to justify pouring diminished beer, and have proven quite frustrating at times.

Accordingly, I have reached a momentous decision.

We are purchasing a cask breather.

A cask breather plugs the spile hole at the top of the firkin with a nipple that is connected to a CO2 tank. When the handle is pulled, the headspace within the firkin is filled not with air from the room, but with short bursts of CO2, which aren’t sufficient to “push” the beer as with normal draft systems, but merely fill the vacated area and maintain a seal against oxidization.

When visiting the British Isles, I’ll still seek out those pubs that serve cask ale the traditional way, in places where a number of factors conspire to make it the right thing to do.

At home, when soliciting and purchasing casks for the enjoyment of our clientele, I’ll do what is necessary to offer these fine ales in the best condition possible. On occasion, we’ll continue to throw a pin (i.e., 5-gallons) on top of the counter and pour cask ale by gravity alone, in the way it was done before hand pumps were invented.

But beginning with the firkins coming this way for Lupulin Land 2005, there’ll be a way to extend the life span of the cask ales we offer, and to broaden the range of options for our patrons.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

UPDATED: 4th Lupulin Land Harvest Hop Fest begins Friday, October 7.

We’ll be exceeding OSHA’s legal limits on IBU’s per square foot of floor space when Lupulin Land 2005 begins on Friday, October 7. It is our fourth harvest hop celebration, and a good occasion for Kentuckiana’s hopheads to unite over a pint or two of America’s most bitter beer and to banish thoughts of abominations like Keystone to the nether regions formerly reserved for silver-bulleted sinners, Miller Lite miscreants, and Auggie Busch’s backyard brunch chardonnay sippers.

Lupulus Eroticus.

The American Heritage dictionary defines lupulin as the “minute yellowish-brown hairs obtained from the strobili of the hop plant, formerly used in medicine as a sedative.” The word lupulin is derived from the new Latin lupulus (hop species, a diminutive of the Latin lupus, hop plant, from lupus, wolf).

Or, more simply: Bitterness beats watery flaccidity any old day.

Contrary to persistent rumors - probably spread by the same people who still insist that Bock beer is the result of brewing vats being cleaned once a year in springtime - beer is not “made” from hops. Beer is “made” from barley, and sometimes wheat and oats and rye. In short, beer is brewed from grain. The body and color of beer derives from these grains, and the alcohol is but a calling card left by yeast happily snacking on sugars in the malt.

Hops act as the spice of beer. Hops balance the inherent, malty sweetness. Hops provide the seasoning. Hops cleanse the palate and leave you begging for more. Hops make it interesting, and perhaps healthy as well: According to researchers for Japan’s Kirin Brewery, isohumulones, agents of bittering in hops, may help curb the development of fat in the human body.

Misconceptions about hops are annoying, persistent and entirely understandable. If one is to judge by the non-flavor profile of America’s best-selling mainstream lagers, it is certain that the majority of beer drinkers in our purportedly great nation are suffering from severe lupulin deprivation.

Trellis succulence: There is no exit strategy.

It’s always too early to predict what beers will pour and when, as typically the juggling of late arrivals and temperamental firkins requires last-minute improvisation.

However, here’s the list of what we believe will be featured during Lupulin Land 2005, updated as of September 27.


As always, Louisville’s microbreweries will be featured at Lupulin Land 2005. This year’s theme is cask conditioning, and accordingly, BBC Beer Company (Main and Clay), Bluegrass Brewing Company (Shelbyville Road), Browning’s Brewery, Cumberland Brews and New Albanian Brewing Company each have been asked to make available a firkin of something hoppy.

We’ll try to deploy the firkins (along with the anticipated Bell’s Two Hearted cask-conditioned entry) for pouring during the first two weeks of the festival. Owing to the nature of cask conditioning, the order of appearance may well be a last-minute decision on our part.

BBC Brewing Company American Pale Ale (APA)
Willamette and Centennial accent a rich, tasty grain bill in original BBC Brewmaster David Pierce’s classic Louisville-style APA - 50 IBU’s, dry-hopped and cask-conditioned especially for Lupulin Land.

Bluegrass Brewing Company (St. Matthews) Professor Gesser’s Mind Numbing Ale
Extreme cask offering (circa 9% abv), dry hopped with Simcoe and Cascade, from the otherwise mild-mannered Kansan and self-described social experiment, Jerry Gnagy.

Browning’s Brewery (single varietal) ESB
The single varietal hops are East Kent Goldings, and the ale is brought to you by Brian and Elliott, perched high atop the brewing tower in the only brewery attached to the downtown Louisville Slugger Field baseball park.

NABC Elector
Making democracy pointless since 2002. 7.2% abv.


On tap throughout the hop festival, and almost all the time otherwise.

Alpha King
Everyday workhorse pale ale from Three Floyds, with plenty of the “Four C’s” (Centennial, Columbus, Chinook, and Cascade) to please. In microbrewing circles, arguably the most renowned Indiana ale, and a keg-a-week staple on the draft menu.

Arrogant Bastard Ale
According to Stone Brewing Company, Arrogant Bastard’s IBU (international bittering units) count and hop content is classified (the arrogant and secretive bastards).

Bell’s Two Hearted Ale (cask-conditioned and keg)
Worth noting: Much beloved IPA (Centennial hops?), now falling on the milder side of the style, delicious, and tied by its creator to Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams short stories set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Hops: Magnum, Perle, Cascades. Here’s the thing: More than a decade since it arrived in the state of Indiana, and Sierra’s flagship ale remains the classic, it’s still very good, and in spite of all the changes we’ve made during that time, we sell a keg each and every week.


Some of these are available periodically throughout the year, while others are coming via special order.

Avery IPA
Avery specializes in huge, excessive creations, and this isn’t one of them. It’s a standard, session IPA with loads of Columbus, Styrian Golding, and Centennial hops, and a reminder that we need not be knocked off our stools onto the floor with every pint.

Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA
Warrior, Amarillo and “Mystery Hop X” are added constantly during a sixty-minute boil; 60 IBUs, 6% abv. Considered the session ale of the eccentrically accelerating 60/90/120 “minute” Dogfish family.

Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA
The gravity is turned up, and Cascade, Columbus and Chinook hops are added constantly during a ninety-minute boil; 90 IBUs, 9% abv. Much notoriety and acclaim for Dogfish have followed in its wake.

Dogfish Head ApriHop
Innovative and tasty Dogfish ale brewed with apricots and hops (Warrior, Amarillo), and I procured it just so I can say that we’re having both an hoppy Scottish ale and an hoppy fruit ale at the same time – and still keep a straight face. 7% abv.

Founders Devil Dancer 2004
According to the brewery, “more IBU’s (200) than any brewery has documented, more than you would believe and dry-hopped for twenty-six days straight with a combination of 10 hop varieties.” Not to mention 13% abv. Here goes ..

Great Divide Hercules Double IPA
85 aggressive IBUs, with all the grapefruit and pine needles that a hop aficionado ever would desire. Brewed in Denver, CO; 9.1% abv, and a 99 score at Rate Beer:

NABC Hoptimus
Hoptimus is brewed by our own Jesse Williams, with loving assistance from Jared Wiliamson, using Simpson's Golden Promise malt; Northern Brewer, Fuggles and Cascades hops; and the house London yeast. Dry hopping with Fuggles and Cascades lends a West Coast feel to a powerful 8.5% double IPA.

Oaken Barrel Super Fly IPA
Complex, intelligently hopped IPA from brewer Ken Price in Greenwood, Indiana. Super Fly might not make it here until the fest’s second week, but we’re looking forward to it.

Rogue (John’s Locker Stock) Glen
Strong amber ale brewed with Simpson’s Golden Promise and Weyermann malts, and Glacier hops, and exhibiting the usual Rogue house character. 8.5% abv.

Rogue Dry-Hopped St. Rogue Red
Stellar exemplar of the Rogue house character, brewed with six malts, bountifully hopped with Chinook, Centennial, and Amarillo (dry-hopping), and pleasing worlds away from Killianswill.

Rogue I2PA 2003
“Imperial” (double) India Pale Ale, precursor of a national microbrewing trend, another longtime favorite of local hopheads, packed with Saaz, Cascade, and Northwest Golding hops, and we hope prime after two years’ aging.

Sierra Nevada IPA
Says the brewery, “SN IPA is brewed using a blend of English malts. Magnum hops are used for the early hop addition, with Goldings for finishing and dry hopping. A very flavorful and hoppy ale.”

Two Brothers Hop Juice Double IPA
Major league baseball players do not have exclusive rights to the “juice,” as in the case of this “enhanced” beer from a suburban Chicago brewery owned and operated by – duh – two brothers. 9.9% abv; 100.1 IBUs.


Our fourth assemblage of hop-laden draft beers once again is dominated by American microbrews, although many “Old World” beer styles showcase the hop. For instance, we serve Pilsner Urquell throughout the year.

Pilsner Urquell
Czech Republic
The same hops are called Zatec or Saaz, in the Czech and German languages, respectively, and they provide inspiration for this original Bohemian interpretation of a pilsner, which after all takes its very name from Plzen, Urquell’s venerable birthplace.

We’ve managed to locate three diverse examples of hoppy European ales and one classic hoppy lager:

Belhaven Twisted Thistle IPA
Yes, I know. Scottish-brewed ales aren’t supposed to be overtly hoppy, but maybe one really will, and if not, then my friend Bill will have something to drink during Lupulin Land. Otherwise, it’s entirely unpreviewed by the Publican, and fingers are duly crossed.

De Dolle Ara Bier
Fine Belgian pale ale, circa 7.5% abv, brewed with Nugget hops from nearby Poperinge along with a good dose of the typical Dolle panache.

Jever Pilsener
The Beer Judge Certification Program summarizes German pilseners in general, and Jever in particular, like this: “Crisp, clean, refreshing beer that prominently features noble German hop bitterness accentuated by sulfates in the water.” A longtime favorite of the Publican.

Poperings Hommel Bier
Like Ara Bier, brewed with Poperinge-grown hops, but different varieties than De Dolle’s pale ale -- and brewed in Watou. I can taste the triennial parade in every glass.


“Randall, a Dogfish head invention, is an organoleptic hop transducer module –- a three-foot-long, cylinder-filter packed with a half a pound of whole leaf hops that we affix to the beer line leaving a keg.”

We have purchased a Randall from Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, and will equip him for action beginning on October 7.

Currently Jesse and Jared are conducting experiments in the brewery, which might explain the long line of people I’ve seen trailing out the back door.

Monday, September 26, 2005

An idea whose time has come.

The Hoppetravel agency in Poperinge, Belgium, and its excellent logo. Just down the street lies the renowned Hotel Palace.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Haarlem's Cafe Briljant.

Rob is the patient, hard-working and beer-loving proprietor of the Café Briljant, which happens to be my friend Boris’s “local” café in Haarlem, Netherlands.

(Kim, Rob, the Curmudgeon and Dewi at the Jopen beer festival)

The café is located on a quiet side street and is frequented by a diverse cross-section of the city’s lovers of well-tended ale (the local Jopen and belgium’s La Chouffe, among others) and a civilized atmosphere in which to enjoy them.

My first visit to the Café Briljant came in 2004, when Kevin Lowber and I closed the highly successful Tour de Trappist bicycle adventure with three days on Boris’s floor and an evening or two of café crawling with him and our new friends Bill and Inge.

Unfortunately, Rob was unavailable for duty in July, 2004, having been packed off for a long overdue break by the café’s regular customers, who were concerned that he hadn’t had a vacation in more than two years, pooled their resources to organize a holiday for him, and volunteered for bar duty in his absence.

Now that’s appreciation.

For an evening’s session or a nightcap after dining in one of Haarlem’s seemingly endless supply of fine restaurants, Café Briljant is the ideal stop, neither loud nor boisterous, and suited for conversation and one of Rob’s thoughtfully chosen drafts and bottles. It seems that single malt lovers also have been known to savor a tipple at the small, comfortable café. Rob’s web site, although in Dutch, is regularly updated and amply illustrates the range of activities that emanate from behind the bar.

I’ve never gotten around to compiling an official list of “sister bars” to Rich O’s, but if such a list ever is assembled, you can bet that the Café Briljant will be on it.

(Photo of the cafe's interior is from Rob's web site)

Friday, September 23, 2005

Highlights of the 2005 journey to Belgium and the Netherlands.

Surprisingly, even a Heineken from a can tastes fairly good when consumed at 30,000 feet to the accompaniment of John Bonham tearing canyon-sized holes in your skull from the complimentary NWA headset.

Classical music and soft jazz just aren't suited to the bustle and hum of a crowded jetliner cabin, but Slash, AC-DC and Liam Gallagher all work wonders.

While listening, I compiled a list of 2005 trip highlights.

One of the most noteworthy was the meeting of eleven friends from far and wide in Haarlem, and it justifies an entire dispatch, which will be forthcoming as soon as the three-day visit can be remembered coherently.

European Parliament tour, Brussels.

(European Parliament canyonlands)

Believe the nay-saying pundits at your own risk, because although the French and Dutch referendums rejected the proposed European Constitution earlier this year, this fascinating and evolving political and economic market of more than 450 million Europeans isn’t about to wither away.

The home of the European Parliament in Brussels is an immense, blocks-long concrete, glass and steel futurama strategically positioned behind the rump of a 19th-century train station, with frenetic activity radiating in all directions through streets, bus stops and construction zones.

We strolled into the adjacent Luxembourg Square during lunch hour, settled into a modernistic bistro for a bite, and subsequently heard many of the 20 official languages of the European Parliament being spoken over linguine, fruit salad and steak tartare – and wine, lots and lots of wine.

During official business, all 20 of the languages are simultaneously translated from command posts that resemble luxury boxes in a sports stadium. Because of this requirement, and also stemming from a desire to keep affairs on track, representatives in attendance must observe time limitations while speaking. Failure to heed the rules results in their audio feeds being unceremoniously cut.
If only it were so simple during New Albany’s City Council meetings, and it probably would be if Ted Heavrin were in charge of them.

Bicycling in the Netherlands.

(Aboard a pedestrian/bike ferry in the Netherlands)

How does this sound: Your own lanes, your own traffic signals, your own road signs, and automobile drivers who know that if they hit you, they’re at fault, irrespective of the circumstances?

That’s bicycling in the Netherlands, and it’s as good as it gets.

It’s also this way in much of the Flemish-speaking provinces in Belgium, but less so in the French part of the country.

To be sure, cobblestones can be tough on the spine, and rain’s never much fun, and yet now that I’ve completed three trips with my bicycle as a constant companion, it’s hard to imagine traveling any other way.

Belgian beer.

(Faro, a traditional sweetened lambic, in the Becasse cafe, Brussels)

Observers close to the Belgian beer and brewing scene are skeptical about its future in the face of industry consolidations and competition from sodas and alcopop, but to the visiting beer enthusiast, the amazing diversity of choice and the ready accessibility of something decent to drink in all except the tiniest of cafes continues to be a wonder.

It is true that many traditional breweries have closed and numerous brands have disappeared since my first trip to Belgium two decades ago. At the same time, a rising generation of microbrewers and the unexpectedly strong influence of the export market give me hope that there will continue to be great beers in Belgium, in spite of justifiable reasons for doubt.

Triennial Poperinge hop festival and parade.

(Children in costume during the hop parade, with the Hotel Palace behind)

Poperinge’s hop festival is a recurring delight. This small provincial town possesses a self-image second to none, and the three-day event reflects a much appreciated commitment to local values.

Hop-related events and related revelry take place throughout the festival weekend, but the highlight is the Sunday parade through the tidy streets of Poperinge. The parade actually tells a story, with an accompanying libretto of sorts printed in several languages, periodic chapter markers, and a refreshing absence of commercial considerations.

The story concerns the history of brewing, the history of the hop, and its importance to the Poperinge economy. Onlookers meet the enemies of the hop -- for instance, brightly festooned children as beetles -- and the plant’s friends, other whistling children dressed as birds.

This year’s parade highlight came when the uniformed marching band from Wolnzach, Poperinge’s hoppy Bavarian sister city, stopped in front of the Hotel Palace, wheeled to face Guy, the owner, and played “Happy Birthday to You” on the occasion of his 60th.

Marvelous coffee.

(Coffee stop at a cafe in Bruges, Belgium)

Drip coffee is almost unheard of in Belgium and the Netherlands, and thankfully so. To order a coffee in a café, restaurant or bar is to receive a cup made fresh each time with an espresso machine. The amount of water simply is increased for regular coffee, and decreased to make espresso. The result is fresh, good and proper.

Just as beers customarily are served with a portion of peanuts or crispy snacks (on the Belgian Riviera, I received a small bowl of tiny, gray coastal shrimp for this purpose), the coffee is served with a wafer or diminutive chocolate. To replicate all of this in Louisville, go immediately to Caffe Classico on Frankfort Avenue and meet Tommie, the owner.

He understands, and also carries Duvel in case it’s time for such refreshment.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Proof that Westvleteren 12 exists.

In the grand tradition of beer advertising, we've chosen a beautiful woman to display the product being touted.

Trust me - it's really Westvleteren 12, the beer that “disappeared” from circulation when it was selected as the best beer in the world by readers of

Not that it was easy to find, even in Belgium.

The Cafe de Vrede, across the lane from the St. Sixtus monastery, was closed for its annual autumn break, which seems usually to occur at the very same time that beer lovers gather in nearby Poperinge for the triennial hop festival. We biked past the venue, and as my old friend Barrie would say, paused to kiss the lock on the door before proceeding into town.

Arriving at the marvelous Hotel Palace in Poperinge, we found no Westvleteren at that estimable cafe; actually, it wasn't clear whether Guy had had any from the start, or whether his stock already was depleted by the time we checked on Saturday.

Cafe de la Paix? Fine food and a great beer selection, but no, not there, either.

Then on Sunday, in preparation for the parade, we dined at the Poussecafe, located just up Ieperstraat from the Palace, and the elusive Trappist elixir was right there, printed on the paper menu, in full view.

I asked the server, "do you really have this beer in stock?"

He shrugged and replied: "It wouldn't be listed if I didn't."

An incredible lunch followed, and the food was good, too, but I still prefer Rochefort 10, with Westvleteren a close second.

Later, comfortably seated along the parade route, I was introduced to a great new way to enjoy Poperings Hommelbier.

Pitch the lemons and limes, and go back to the basics.

More on the trip is coming. It's nice to be back home.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

PC's hiatus, as it were.

There'll probably be no activity here from Sept. 8 through 21.

Not that there won't be beer consumed ... and if I have the opportunity to report from the Netherlands and Belgium, I will.

See you on the 22nd.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

UPDATED: Tonight at Rich O's: $10 for a pint of Abita Purple Haze - for a good cause.

NOTE: This will last as long as there's beer left in the keg, so remember to check back!

$10 for a pint of Abita Purple Haze?

You bet, and with all proceeds to be donated to Hurricane Katrina disaster relief.

On Tuesday afternoon, we’re tapping a keg of Abita Purple Haze, a raspberry wheat ale brewed near New Orleans. 20-oz. Imperial pints will be sold for $10, with all proceeds earmarked for disaster relief.

There are approximately 95 pints in a keg, so when the keg’s dry, we’ll probably round off the contribution at $1,000.

As a side note, it would appear that Abita, maker also of the justly renowned Turbo Dog, escaped major damage, but there's no word yet on Dixie and Crescent City Brewing.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

The revival of Griesedieck.

Thanks to Jay Tyler for this link to the web site of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Back and brewing: Family members resurrect Griesedieck Brothers Beer, by Robbi Courtaway of the Suburban Journals/Citizen Journal.

This revival of Griesedieck hasn’t come without a certain measure of historical revisionism:

Today's German-style pilsener is better, the Griesedieck cousins say. Unlike its working-class grandfather, this microbrew follows a 13th-century German purity law that allows the use of only four ingredients: malted barley, hops, yeast and water. The old GB was corn-based and sweeter, they said.

To be exact, the German beer purity law makes mention of only three ingredients in this context, as yeast wasn't understood in the 13th century.

As for the original Griesedieck (can there be a better name for a beer?), of course it was “corn-based”, because not unexpectedly, it was a pre-Prohibition pilsner formulation that also likely used six-row barley rather than the two-row preferred by German brewers.

The secret to overcoming the corn sweetness and the earthy six-row tang isn't to turn to a polished German recipe that never was associated with the original Griesedieck.

Rather, it is to hop the bejesus out of the revived pre-Prohibition lager – not the best solution for modern focus groups, but the one that makes me the happiest.

And hoppiest.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Now more than ever, absolute power corrupts Big Red Liquors absolutely.

Now that Indiana Universty has returned to the forefront of the annual chart for beer drinking prowess, it’s time to remember the pivotal role that the city’s Big Red Liquors plays in all this drunken debauchery.

Pulling rank: Is IU really No. 1 in beer-guzzling, or are college lists just blowing smoke?, by Mark Coomes, (short shelf life for Courier-Journal links).

The following was featured in Publicanista! issue #17 in 2003.


On the evening of Thursday, April 10, 2003, at the conclusion of the first session of the 10th Annual Big Red Beer Festival in the Bloomington, Indiana convention center, our visiting delegation of the New Albanian Brewing Company was ordered to leave the premises, instructed not to return, and provided with a police escort to reinforce the point.

Not since the Reno Gang’s last stand during the post-Civil War era of regional lawlessness has New Albany produced such a desperate band of hardened brigands - or so our overbearing hosts would have you believe.

Perhaps a Roaring Twenties analogy works better: Just call me the John Dillinger of microbrewing (it would be presumptuous to identify with the likes of “Pretty Boy Floyd.”) Or, more recently, we evoke nostalgic shades of Chicago, the Democratic National Convention, 1968: “The whole world is watching.”

Our walking papers were verbally delivered to us by two members of the Big Red Liquors management team, John Glumb and Wade Shanower, a pair of wholly corporate, well-fed and utterly plain men who differed from the other polo shirts in attendance by the shared habit of spluttering ominously, brilliant white teeth clinched, blue neck veins bulging in a most unhealthy way and misshapen, contorted faces as red as their Big Red Liquors knits.

Setting aside the acrimonious tone of voice by which the charges against us were delivered by these ill-tempered voices of doom and finger-wagging remonstrance, we were able to discern three general themes: We had violated the “one-ounce pour” taboo, incited the crowd to begin chanting scurrilous anti-Miller Lite slogans, and scandalously refused to “respect” the festival and its organizers.

Three strikes, and we were out - gone, removed, our presence no longer tainting the general vicinity, presumably relegated to the woodshed to reflect on our misdeeds.

In truth, we were quite happy to go.

There are dozens of places far closer to home where we might suffer extreme verbal abuse without donating our beer and precious time for the privilege, but being annoyingly principled on those occasions when we’re pushed into it against our collective wills, we feel rather strongly that Big Red’s allegations were the epic stuff of nonsense, and that the mean-spirited tone in which they were delivered was quite unnecessary in an assembly of adults.

Moreover, we assert that our demeanor during the festival’s opening night was very much in keeping with the fundamental nature of the festival as Big Red Liquors has operated it over the past decade, and that this in turn mirrors the reasons why the company has become successful - or, in Big Red’s own words (prominently displayed on the company’s web site): “We’ve got your party.”


Big Red Surveys Its Market - and It Is Good.

To understand the events of April 10, 2003, one must first consider the context of the local business climate in which Big Red Liquors has operated during its 30-year history.

As all Hoosiers know (except, of course, the ones loyal to Purdue University), Bloomington is the consummate Midwestern college town, home of the main campus of Indiana University, without which the Monroe County seat would be indistinguishable from a dozen other cities of similar size in the state that don’t have a student population of some 40,000.

Detailed statistics aren’t at all required to gauge the impact of these students on the community, both economically and in sociological terms.

Strikingly, and appropriately, Bloomington is an oasis of cultural diversity in a corn-fed, lily-white desert, with people from all across the globe attending IU and working for the university. Looking for a Tibetan monastery? Go to Bloomington. Eritrean, Moroccan and Afghani cuisine? Same place. Exotic newspapers with no NASCAR point standings? You get the picture.

Existing alongside this esoteric world tableau are the nativist Indiana rites, ranging from the rocker John Mellencamp’s place of residence to fundamentalist Christian churches to the truest religion of the state, basketball, exemplified by an IU roundball program that ranks as one of the most fabled in America, a veritable monolith supported vociferously by legions of red-clad undergraduates and their brothers, sisters, parents and grandparents who came before them to Bloomington for the quintessential American educational experience.

This begs the question: Exactly what is the quintessential American university-level educational experience? And, what does all this have to do with that other hallowed institution, Big Red Liquors, which for many IU undergraduates has been far better known than the location and contents of their classrooms?

University Undergraduates: Necessary (and Profitable) Evil?

All told, the history of university students as hard-partying Bohemians predates the United States, and probably can be traced back to Charles University in Bohemia (Prague, to be exact), or perhaps to German bastions of higher learning like Heidelberg (remember to visit the student prison) or England’s Oxford and Cambridge.

But how did it come to be that going away to college in America meant diving headfirst into a relentless, bottomless kegger (not to mention a willing coed), wearing togas and Hawaiian shirts, sleeping only occasionally, grudgingly cracking open a book to cram mere moments before the test, and in general, behaving just like the legendary celluloid fraternity in “National Lampoon’s Animal House”?

According to Professor Murray Sperber, who in an ironic twist teaches at IU in Bloomington, such a situation developed at the behest of America’s colleges and universities themselves.

With the legendary Hollywood movie itself as an ex post facto demonstrative tool, “Big Time U’s” knowingly have sought to entice students with the recreational lures of top-level party culture (on- or off-campus) and top-flight NCAA athletic programs.

Dr. Sperber identifies this phenomenon as the “Beer and Circus,” which naturally echoes the “bread and circus” of ancient Rome. He believes that it is a ploy designed to distract students from the failure of their chosen institutions to provide a quality undergraduate education in return for the vast sums of money required of otherwise marginally qualified students.

Not coincidentally, Bloomington plays host to a major university that is a perennial Big Ten basketball contender, with a mega-party tradition incorporating events like the Little 500 bicycle race … and the city also is the home turf of Big Red Liquors, stagers of the annual beer festival, with eleven convenient locations to serve the student body.

For Dr. Sperber, a persistent and under-appreciated critic of the role of major college sports in America, a vicious, unholy cycle undermines the quality of higher education. The cycle begins when major universities covet lucrative governmental and corporate funding that derives from success at high-level academic research.

To achieve this success, these universities must employ high-level academicians to do research, but this effectively precludes their involvement in teaching undergraduates, whose presence increasingly demands intensive, remedial resources that are not applicable to the dictates of high-level research programs.

However, the tuition money demanded of undergraduates remains essential to the overall financial structure of the institution, as it can be raised seemingly at will and eagerly paid by those in need of the university diploma that is now absolutely necessary to pursue any significant (read: higher paying) career.

Consequently, undergraduates are shunted into mass lecture halls holding hundreds of students for classes commonly taught by graduate assistants or part-time professors. In short, the undergraduate mob is poorly served in terms of meaningful educational quality, which in more merit-based educational systems the world over might well result in protests and demonstrations on the part of the students.

Beer and Circus.

Not so in America, says Dr. Sperber, because undergraduates here are amply rewarded with distractions, or circuses, most noticeably in the form of big-time athletics, most often football and basketball. Supposedly, athletic success in gridiron combat or during the springtime ritual of March Madness attracts more undergraduate students (and their money) to the university, which is more necessary than ever owing to the inconvenient fact that few athletic programs turn a profit for their schools. No matter; everyone rallies around a winning team, and World Civilization 101 is mercifully forgotten.

The second pivotal distraction, which Dr. Sperber alleges has been implicitly condoned if not explicitly promoted by America’s universities, is beer: Beer by the case, the pitcher, the keg; beer, beer, wonderful beer.

Dr. Sperber points again to the importance of the film “Animal House” in helping to define the university experience as non-stop Bacchanalia symbolized by the totemic, drunken, decidedly non-academic John Belushi strutting his stuff while wearing a sweatshirt reading simply “College.”

What could be more collegiate than clocking out on Thursday, drinking through the weekend, attending the big game against Tech, partying far into Sunday and possibly even Monday, and barely considering one’s ostensible reason for being on campus in the first place until some time Tuesday - at which point the cycle is almost ready to begin anew?

"We’ve Got Your Party,” Redux.

To apply Dr. Sperber’s compelling theory of “Beer and Circus” to his own places of employment and residence - Indiana University and Bloomington - is to begin to understand the convergence between the current socio-political climate in the city and on the campus, and by extension, the inexplicable rage directed at the New Albanian Brewing Company by the two functionaries of Big Red Liquors.

The “Circus”: Much of Dr. Sperber’s time at Indiana University coincided with that of Bob Knight, the school’s famously talented, prodigiously intemperate and unfailingly controversial basketball coach, who presided for decades over a successful program that distracted not only Indiana University’s undergraduates, but also many of the State of Indiana’s less discriminating adults.

The “Beer”: Both Dr. Sperber and Coach Knight resided and worked in Bloomington during the same decades as Mark McAlister, who founded Big Red Liquors in 1973 and built the company into Southern Indiana’s largest retailer of alcoholic beverages. While Big Red Liquors isn’t the only package store operating in Bloomington, it has bought out many other local independent operators, and it holds a market share sufficiently large to approach that of a monopoly.

There is no way of knowing how much of Big Red’s business comes from the student population on Indiana University, although I hasten to emphasize not from directly selling to minors. There is nothing to indicate that Big Red Liquors has been anything other than scrupulous with respect to under-aged sales, nor could it have been otherwise for the company to continue to amass package sales licenses.

At the same time, it is highly unlikely that Big Red Liquors could ever have grown so large without playing a crucial role in supplying “Beer” for the “Circus” on and near the Indiana University campus. In serving this market, either directly or indirectly, Big Red has always had willing assistance from those brewers standing to gain the most from college town monopoly sellers.

As Dr. Sperber reveals in his book, the 1970’s and 1980’s were halcyon days for beer at the ol’ alma mater. America’s megabrewers regularly dispatched special sales representatives to preside over the dispensing of cheap beer to university undergraduates - beer purchased by fraternities and sororities as well as individuals from local retail “partners in profit” like Big Red Liquors.

When these decades of complicity in America’s campus party scene led to widespread criticism (described below), and university socio-political climates became too hot for comfort, the megabrewers maintained influence through their ubiquitous advertising budgets, underwriting the billion-dollar televised college sports schedule and maintaining the intimate ties between the circus and its alcoholic fuel.

It’s simply no coincidence that local retailers in university towns, like Big Red Liquors in Bloomington, seized the heaven-sent opportunity to grow wealthy on the broad shoulders of the megabrewers whose products have been advertised nationally and marketed with feverish intensely to students, especially those drinking to the tribal cadence of campus sporting events.

Welcome to the 2003 Big Red Beer Festival …

One can see all of these seemingly disparate threads come together in the Big Red Liquors Beer Festival, the ostensible aim of which is laudable and legitimate: To raise money for the Boy’s and Girl’s Clubs of Bloomington.

However, during its ten-year run, the beer festival has served other less savory purposes alongside that of supporting local charity. One is to gather Big Red Liquors’ suppliers - wholesalers and brewers of megabrews, microbrews and imports - under one tent for a sycophantic show of love for Big Red Liquors.

For a vendor to miss out on this “spontaneous” demonstration of affection, akin to the Communist party congresses of old where the captive nations gathered to express appreciation to Moscow for its benevolence, would be to risk an unfortunate accident, such as loss of shelf space or a refusal by Big Red to buy at previously acceptable levels and margins.

Obviously, to relentlessly pressure suppliers into ensuring healthy profit margins is to enable the retailer to sell vast quantities of inexpensive beer to its target market, which in a university town is not primarily composed of factory workers, suburban housewives or wine snobs.

Many of the same brewers and wholesalers privately express exasperation and annoyance with Big Red Liquors as a business partner, with one word, “arrogant,” being used regularly along with other, less polite turns of phrase.

Unsurprisingly, given the prerequisites of business intercourse, public attribution of these sentiments is rare, but most of us accept the veracity of the old saying in the context of Big Red’s monopoly capitalism: Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

A final purpose for the Big Red Liquors Beer Festival is to provide six hours (over two nights) of drunken revelry for an audience composed primarily of students. For many years I have been told by brewers and wholesalers that the Big Red Liquors Beer Festival is the very last place you’d go to attempt an honest and thoughtful sampling of the world’s great beers.

Big Red’s palpable contempt for those in attendance at its annual beer festival is legendary and much discussed. Identification is checked, money is harvested and the ensuing throngs are handled with all the finesse of a Third World stockyard. Consider this testimonial, as published after this year’s festival on

“They (Big Red) sent people directly from a glass of beer into the parking lot. They didn't recognize the value of letting people have a few minutes to collect themselves before leaving. They relied on police presence to close the place down as fast as possible so they could get home and watch the Daily Show. They actually threatened their patrons while the folks were quietly moving out as rapidly as possible.

“Given this attitude by the organizers and the stereotypical bullying attitude that their paid uniformed force showed, it will be very possible for people to be arrested or assaulted Friday night by employees of Big Red - it could have happened Thursday night. At the very least, expect to be shoved out unceremoniously into the night to fend for yourself. Not a good idea on their part, and not very flattering of the 47 vendors.”

Hey, New Albanian, Don’t Let the Door Hit You.

Given past experiences, why would the 2003 edition of Bloomington’s (in)-famous Big Red Liquors Beer Festival be any different from the ones before it?

First, a long-term socio-political trend has come to fruition, one that first emerged in the 1980’s when M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) came to prominence.

In Indiana, as in many other states, coalitions of religious fanatics, neo-prohibitionists, health fascists and generic do-gooders (among them the Governor’s Commission for a Drug-Free Indiana and the Indiana Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking, to name two) have banded together to challenge the status quo of campus alcohol consumption. These efforts have been dutifully buttressed by media news coverage of topics like binge drinking, fraternity initiation abuses, and underage drinking.

Consequently, throughout the decade of the 1990’s, university administrations began scurrying from the unholy glare of scrutiny, responding with various edicts, pieties and policies designed to curb the availability and use of alcoholic beverages - in effect, seeking to reform if not abolish outright the “Beer” pillar of “Beer and Circus.”

More recently, there arose a second factor specific to Indiana University itself: The announcement by the “Princeton Review” in August, 2002, that based on the results of the publication’s annual survey of American college students, IU was the nation’s top-ranking party school.

That this finding was published only a few months after the school’s basketball team unexpectedly advanced to the final game of the NCAA tournament must have been music to the ears of Dr. Sperber, but it was purely fingernails on the blackboards of IU’s administrators, who had all but declared victory over such unsightly blemishes.

With spotlights again shining in its eyes, the administration of IU responded with outrage, denial and aggression. During the fall semester of 2002, three times as many IU students were arrested by campus police on alcohol charges as during the same time period a year earlier. Fraternity houses were raided, and students provoked into indignation by the extent of the oppression.

It isn’t known whether Indiana University has decreased its undergraduate tuition fees or lessened its class sizes, but quite obviously a full-court press against the malt beverage component of Dr. Sperber’s “Beer and Circus” is taking place in Bloomington.

It Is Said that Only Cockroaches Will Survive a Nuclear Conflagration.

And, through it all, who remains the biggest retailer of beer in Bloomington, eager as ever to sell cases and kegs to all comers with two forms of I.D.?
That’d be Big Red Liquors, who in April of 2003 staged its tenth annual beer festival but the first since the post-“Princeton Review” glare of searchlights began to re-examine Dr. Sperber’s perennially unsettling “Beer and Circus” equation.

Into this festival strolled the New Albanian Brewing Company’s four representatives, largely unaware that were about to become sacrificial lambs for a Big Red Liquors management team eager to prove that it was in control of the situation, but unwilling to approach the “offenders” like adults, preferring instead to rant, rave and posture not unlike that ridiculous high school principal who used to scream at you to grow up and be mature - come to think about it, not unlike Animal House’s own self-serving Dean Wormer.

It isn’t hard to feel at least some empathy for a business that has achieved its present level of success by exploiting a captive marketplace, “Beer and Circus,” that is coming under increasing attack from elements of society who if give free rein would re-institute Prohibition and put Big Red Liquors completely out of business. I feel for Big Red in this broadest of senses.

There is far less empathy to be felt for Big Red Liquors insofar as it has sought (and largely succeeded) to monopolize the Bloomington retail market and to exploit beer wholesalers and brewers accordingly, particularly those smaller players who cannot afford to play the game in the manner of Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors.

There is no empathy whatsoever for those staffers of Big Red Liquors whose human relations skills apparently were gleaned from a close study of the deposed and detested totalitarian regimes of Pol Pot and Nicolae Ceausescu, irrespective of the stress and strain accompanying a beer festival in troubled times.

Did Big Red’s John Glumb warn NABC not to fill glasses beyond the one-ounce limit?

Yes, but twice, not a preposterous six times as he now claims.

Were we the only ones warned? No.

Were we the only ones ejected for the offense? Yes.

Did the people crowded in front of the NABC table begin chanting “F&%k Miller Lite?”

Yes, and we certainly encouraged this truly spontaneous statement of principle, confident that wars are fought to protect freedom of expression, and that truth is never libelous.

Do Glumb and his boss, Wade Shanower, believe in these same tenets?

Apparently not, but you’ll have to ask them, because we tried and were promptly silenced - which in and of itself eloquently provides their answer.

Did we disrespect Big Red Liquors and the “meaning” of its annual beer festival?

As I’ve tried to make clear, this depends on which of the festival’s several meanings is intended. NABC has no qualms with the company’s or the festival’s charitable aims. As for licking the boots and certain anatomical regions of monopoly capitalists? There’s nothing about such a servile exercise that’s worthy of respect, so in this sense we provided none.

However, respect runs both ways.

Did Big Red’s John Glumb and Wade Shanower shower us with rudeness, condescension, dismissiveness and contempt?

Yes. Their attitude is simply impossible to fathom. Talk to your customers that way, and you have no customers. Talk to your suppliers that way, and they grin and bear it because they have to so as to secure a piece of the monopolistic pie.
Talk to NABC that way, and the Curmudgeon will write about it - now, tomorrow, and forever more, until an apology is forthcoming.

Given Big Red’s breathtaking arrogance (that word again!), we can expect the apology to accompany word that the last American college student has gone on the wagon, the NCAA has been dismantled, and Anheuser-Busch has conceded use of the name Budweiser to the Czech brewer from whom A-B stole it.

I’m not holding my breath.

As for the outcome of the evening and our ejection from the 2003 Big Red Beer Festival, we take pride, because the buffoonish venality of Big Red Liquors brought welcomed notoriety to the New Albanian Brewing Company, which dominated the proceedings during its sole evening of participation and received numerous compliments from the friendly crowd.

The city of Bloomington remains cosmopolitan and lively, a bastion of cool in the midst of Indiana’s numbing conformity and conservatism.

But Bloomington’s premier package liquor and beer monopoly, and at least two of its less-than-distinguished standard-bearers, wears far fewer clothes than commonly imagined.

Regime change now!