Thursday, March 31, 2016

About an excellent brewery crawl in Bloomington, Indiana (March 30, 2016).

Knowing there'd be no chance of making the Bloomington Craft Beer Festival (April 9) this year, when a chance came to spend a day roaming this great Indiana city, I grabbed it. It was a cool, overcast day in March, ideal for walking.


First up was the Soma Coffee House on Kirkwood for espresso and short stories by Wolfgang Hilbig.


Just down the street toward campus is Bloomington Bagel Company, and a breakfast of an onion bagel with cream cheese and heavenly lox. I love the smell of cured/smoked/pickled fishies in the morning.


About this time, it occurred to me that there might be a walkable drinking pattern for my day. I resolved to walk first to Upland Brewing Company, where they were unlocking the doors upon approach. Campside Session IPA got things rolling.


Then it was all the way across town to Bloomington Brewing Company in Lennie's, where a Kirkwood Cream Ale tasted wonderful with a lunch portion of chorizo and potato soup.


In route to The Tap, I paused to observe Bloomington's parking meter regime. There were lots of meters, most of them with a car parked alongside. It's the best way to assign value to a necessary resource, but ultimately it didn't matter to me. I was on foot.


The Tap is located on the main square. It began as a beer bar and multi-tap, and later added a small brewery. My sampler included Berliner Weisse, Tripel, Oktoberfest and IPA. The beers were impressive, and I enjoyed my chat with a transplanted native of Buffalo NY.


The bartender at the The Tap helpfully reminded me that Quaff On (Big Woods) has a taproom sans brewery a stone's throw from Soma. My beer of choice was Hoosier Red Ale.



Finally, the place I wanted to go most of all, Function Brewing. It's on Sixth Street, just off the north side of the square. D did a sampler and ordered a Capriole goat cheese appetizer. My pint was Smoked Amber. There was time to chat with the Llewellyns, and then we set off for our evening meal at Esan Thai.


D47. KANG PHET KHAI KHOB
Crispy fried chicken or tofu cooked with red curry, coconut milk, pineapple, bell pepper, chili and basil. Spice level starts at 3.


Funny, but my road trips all lead to diets and/or detox.

__

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

"I don't want to open a brewery."



Follows an uncommonly well-stated cautionary tale.


I Don't Want to Open a Brewery (And Maybe You Shouldn't Either) at Beer Simple

If you brew beer, it's only a matter of time before you get this question: "So, when are you opening a brewery of your own?" For me, there's a simple (of course) answer: "Never."


Especially this. Trust me. You'll never have enough money, especially if it takes a while to get on track.


This is all, admittedly, just a layperson's perspective, but I've known, overheard, interviewed, and observed a lot of new brewery owners over the past several years. Some are succeeding despite their individual limitations - but a lot are struggling and/or failing because of them, too. Maybe you'll get lucky. Maybe you'll be able to fix things on the fly. But if it were me, I don't want this to come down to luck, and at least one local brewery recently went under because they were doing a little too much learning "on the job" and ran out of money before they could get things back on track. Don't let it happen to you. You might never get another shot at this, so make it a good one.


The worst shading of reality is the very middle. If you're too good to fail but not good enough to succeed ... it's very, very hard.

___

Monday, March 28, 2016

THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: Euro ’85, Part 31 … Leningrad in three vignettes.

THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: Euro ’85, Part 31 … Leningrad in three vignettes.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

(Thirty-first in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)

---

Leningrad, August 1 – more than a month past the peak nocturnal glow of northern lights, but with ample illumination to occupy roughly 70 hours in the USSR’s hero city.

Upon arrival the group was issued rudimentary maps, fed a brown bag snack and taken back aboard the bus for an orientation drive. We weren’t compelled to remain there. As adults, there were no restrictions on our activities, apart from remaining within city limits and refraining from illegality.

Consequently, as soon as opportunity came, Mark and I left the tour bus. By early evening, we were exploring the general vicinity of Nevsky Prospekt, Leningrad’s major downtown street.

Mark regaled me with tales of his travels. He’d bartended his way across the English-speaking world before diving headlong into continental Europe. In return, I spoke to him of Russian history. Ironically, we decided against finding beer, and set off for ice cream.

Ice cream was acclaimed as one item the Soviets invariably got right. We found some at a curbside kiosk, tucked away on a side street. It was very quiet, and two Russian women roughly our age were in the mid-sized queue next to us.

Waiting afforded the garrulous Australian an opportunity to chat with them, a task only slightly complicated by their limited English skills and his non-existent Russian.

This comical cross-cultural conversation continued as the four of us ate our ice cream. My friend’s ultimate aim was obvious, though it struck me as far too surreal to ponder.

There was a pause. Mark proposed a drink, and quickly took me aside, whispering: The petite brunette was his, the taller redhead mine, and the petty details – time, place, requisite small gift – all could be arranged quite easily once matters progressed a bit further.

Glancing over my shoulder, I could see a similar conversation taking place. The brunette doing was doing most of the talking, and I was flabbergasted. In a scant 30 minutes, after only three hours in an utterly unfamiliar city, Mark had pole-vaulted the language barrier to achieve instantaneous hook-up results. He was a handsome charmer, but this was beyond amazing.

Unfortunately, nothing about this carnal Communist four-poster of an ice cream-laden windfall appealed to me. I wasn’t a prude, but merely favored prudence.

“Let’s get to know each other” seemed solid advice any time, much less in a totalitarian country. Earlier in the summer, there had been an evening in Athens with the girl from Switzerland. We’d met at the hostel in Delphi, hiked to the ruins together, and shared seats on the train. She spoke English. We talked while she knitted. Pell-mell is not my default speed.

In Leningrad, Mark’s dazzling improvisation seemed like a transaction. I feared my disinterest would be a deal-breaker, except that in truth, my intended partner looked almost as unenthused. Perhaps she had come to the ice cream kiosk to eat ice cream, and not be randomly assigned a date.

The Australian was surprisingly conciliatory. It wouldn’t be a problem, he said. They left in search of alcohol, and I walked back to the hotel, viewing Leningrad in the gloaming, off the beaten path.

On Friday the story was told. The redhead went home to her children, and the brunette took Mark to meet her husband, who thoughtfully watched television in the main room of their flat, discretely drinking the bottle of vodka brought to him from hard currency shop, as she earned 20 dollars American … a week’s salary.

---

The Peter and Paul Fortress occupies an island in the Neva River. It is the birthplace of St. Petersburg from 1703, as commissioned by Peter the Great. Inside the fortress, the Peter and Paul Cathedral is one of Russia’s most important Eastern Orthodox churches, a landmark housing the mortal remains of numerous Tsars.

On Friday, two accredited Intourist functionaries accompanied the group for sightseeing. The ranking guide was a woman in her late fifties, and her assistant was a younger woman who served as English interpreter.

Among us was a quartet of Swiss high school history teachers, two men and two women. One of them looked rather like Phil Collins, 30-something and balding, and already his barbed asides had marked him as a man of considerable wit.

In short, Phil crisply supplemented the guide’s talking points with revisionist commentary of his own. Already that morning at the Winter Palace, he’d been overheard loudly correcting the official historical record, and consequently was a marked man.

There’s one in every capitalist crowd.

Now, inside the Peter and Paul Cathedral, our guide spoke about the Romanov imperial dynasty, scrolling through a list of kingly burials. Each was repeated by the interpreter: Nicholas I is buried there; Alexander II is interred here, and so on.

Are there questions?

Phil raised his hand. He was ignored. Two pairs of eyes darted left and right, hoping someone else would speak instead. No one did, and at last, Phil was allowed to make his inquiry.

“Can you tell us where the last Tsar is buried?”

It wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that Phil took the Leningrad tour for the sole reason of asking this most politically incorrect of questions.

You see, while any Communist tour guide was happy to explain the symbolic necessity of deposing the imperial order as a prerequisite for social justice, in 1985 the Soviets had yet to come clean about the last Tsar’s messy personal end.

Nicholas II, his wife and their children were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918, their bodies thrown into a pit near Ekaterinburg, perhaps 1,500 miles from St. Petersburg, subsequently renamed for V.I. Lenin, who gave the orders for the killings.

Amateur Russian sleuths apparently located the Tsar’s gravesite around 1979, but positive identification of the victims had to wait until after the USSR’s own demise.

Of course, the whole world always knew the truth. Phil’s question turned the interpreter’s face white and very hard. She turned to the guide and spoke Russian. The guide’s face became just as stony. Briefly, they both glared. There was a pause, and a collective shrug.

“He is not buried here.”

“I see,” said Phil. “Thank you for answering.”

---

It isn’t that Leningrad’s inhabitants didn’t dine out. Many received their main meal at lunchtime, as served at their workplaces, and they also took quick bites at any number of “people’s” or “worker’s” cafeterias, many serving soup, potatoes and dumplings.

As a guidebook colorfully stated, these eateries were “dirt cheap and dirty,” and in later years, I became enamored of their conceptual cousins in Eastern Europe. Parts is parts, sausage never scared me, and the cafeterias in Hungary punched far above their weight for the price.

Soviet “sit-down” restaurants comparable to the sort Americans were accustomed to seeing by the half-dozen at every interstate interchange were regarded by ordinary Russians as places for special occasions, like weddings and anniversaries.

Above a certain classification, formal restaurants had the reputation and appearance of being inaccessible to normal human beings. In essence, all their seats were reserved, always.

There’d be a sign stating the restaurant was entirely booked, even though a glance through the window showed most (sometimes all) seats empty. A doorman would guard the door as though he defended the vaults at Ft. Knox.

Only later did I learn the key to breaking the code, because in fact, anyone could phone the restaurant or visit earlier in the day and make a reservation. It was that simple. However, in the beginning this wasn’t evident. The game was all about bribing one’s way inside.

Hence the value of western cigarettes and toothpaste.

Saturday, August 3, 1985 was my 25th birthday, and when Mark found out, he couldn’t contain his enthusiasm. A splurge was merited, and my meal was his treat. We’d heard about Baku, an Azerbaijani restaurant on Sadovaya Street, close to Nevsky Prospekt, and arrived there hopeful of somehow gaining entry.

Mark took the lead and was rebuffed by the doorman. He failed a second time, bruising the worldly Australian’s machismo. At this moment we were approached by two English-speaking Russian men (brothers, they said), who offered to help resolve the impasse.

I was wary, but a few words later and all four of us were inside Baku. Our new friends sat with us. They denied ulterior motives, and said eating was their only objective. It would be a rare treat to break bread with foreigners.

To this day, I’ve never had a clear understanding of who they were. No black market transactions were requested. We weren’t fleeced. The two men made no advances of any sort. Rather, there was wide-ranging and bracingly frank conversation over our meals and bottomless vodka – at least until the bottom fell out for Mark.

I recall the food as being fairly exotic, with actual green salads made from strange indigenous stalks, weeds and veggies, and a garlicky chicken dish as the main course.

The drinks list at Soviet restaurants tended to be slim; perhaps juice, mineral water, sparkling wine and vodka, though seldom beer. Vodka was the choice, leading to my first experience with timeless travel wisdom.

Attention: Do not try to keep pace with Russians drinking vodka.

You might die in the attempt.

They’ve been doing it since they were babies, via tubes inserted through their swaddling. That night at Baku, I watched as Mark ignored this axiom. He paid dearly.

Seeing the direction we were traveling, I resolved to keep a clear head. It wasn’t hard to do. At that stage of my drinking career, straight liquor of any sort was a touch too much for me.

In the end, Mark dissolved into an Aussie puddle of vodka-infused goo. Fortunately, our chivalrous Russian partners took nonchalant control of the situation, helping settle the bill accurately, getting Mark into the street for the necessary vomiting, then hailing a taxi to get us safely to our hotel.

Did these exemplary strangers really come with us to Mark’s room for a nightcap, or am I dreaming?

They simply had to be KGB. There is no other explanation.

Next time: Buses, boats, trains and the road back to Luxembourg.

---

Previously:

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 30 … Or, as it was called at the time, Leningrad.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 29 … Helsinki beneath my feet, but Leningrad on my mind.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 28 … A Finnish detour to Tampere for beer and sausages.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 27 … Stockholm's blonde ambition, with or without mead-balls.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 26 … The Hansa brewery tour, and a farewell to Norway.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 25 … Frantic pickled Norway.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 24 … An aspiring “beer hunter” amid Carlsberg’s considerable charms.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 23 … A fleeting first glimpse of Copenhagen.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 22 … It's how the tulips were relegated.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 21 … A long day in Normandy, though not "The Longest Day."

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 20 … War stories, from neutral Ireland to Omaha Beach.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 19 … Sligo, Knocknarea, Guinness and Freddie.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 18 … Irish history with a musical chaser.

The PC: Euro '85, Part 17 ... A first glimpse of Ireland.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 16 … Lizard King in the City of Light.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 15 … The traveler at 55, and a strange interlude.

The PC: We pause Euro '85 to remember the Mathäser Bierstadt in Munich.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 14 … Beers and breakfast in Munich.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 13 … Tears of overdue joy at Salzburg's Augustiner.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 12 … Stefan Zweig and his world of yesterday.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 11: My Franz Ferdinand obsession takes root.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 10: Habsburgs, history and sausages in Vienna.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 9 … Milan, Venice and a farewell to Northern Italy.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 8 … Pecetto idyll, with a Parisian chaser.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 7 … An eventful detour to Pecetto.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 6 … When in Rome, critical mass.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.

The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … Where it all began.

_

Saturday, March 26, 2016

"Whether you go for the pizza or the craft beer, you will be happy with both at Charlestown Pizza Company."

Charlestown Pizza Company garners well-deserved ink from Indiana On Tap. It's ironic, because just last week I had lunch with a friend and learned that he'd never been to CPC. It is an omission I urged him to remedy.

What do you MEAN you haven't been there, either? Do I have to charter a tour bus to Charlestown?


GREAT BEER & PIZZA IN CHARLESTOWN, IN? YOU HEARD US RIGHT! by Charlie Sasse (Indiana On Tap)

... Back to the business at hand: the beer and pizza. Let me start this off with I do not care for standard pizzas. If it gets delivered in 30 minutes or less chances are I ordered a sandwich or wings. When Shawn asked me what I wanted to eat, I told him to bring me whatever he wanted. I was surprised with a mashed potato pizza. Yes - MASHED POTATO PIZZA!!! Bacon, cheese, garlic, mashed potatoes, and well cooked pizza crust. It was like eating the best potato boats you have ever had, because they were in a crunchy and chewy pizza crust. It was 8 inches of delicious carb on carb violence. I paired it with a Saugatuck Brewing Neapolitan Stout and it was a glutinous 35 minute food vacation. The sweetness and roasted flavors in the stout played well with the savory pizza and was even better as the beer warmed up. Things like this are why I am fat, just in case you were wondering. This is what Shawn and Tajana wanted: a place in Charlestown with good pizza and beer where the family could all go together. And, they were tired of driving 30+ minutes just to get it.

___

Friday, March 25, 2016

In Colorado, "Company transforms disability into 'Brewability.'"

I have a social media friend named Loren. He's a musician, and works with the disabled. If we've ever met in person, it's been only brief, but he lives just a few blocks away, and I've learned a lot from him lately.

One of my recent civic preoccupations has been the casually neglectful way cities the size of New Albany treat their disabled residents and visitors, especially as it pertains to accessibility -- sidewalks, crosswalks, and the nuts and bolts of getting around, as it pertains to folks who don't find it as easy to get around as I do.

I don't know the best way to phrase it. The issue, whether it applies to bureaucratic functionaries or ordinary people, is the complete absence of recognition. That ADA ramp is necessary, not a place to park an earth mover while the crew has lunch. It makes me crazy.

Furthermore, the pervasive cluelessness isn't restricted to those among us who are disabled now. As Loren points out, quite a few of us will be there ourselves, at some point in our lives. I watched recently as my mom tried to acclimate herself to using a walker. She succeeded, and has greater mobility than before.

I don't want her to try and kick trash cans out of her path. Think, you idiots.

Anyway ... Loren sent me this link, which tells a story that is veritable salve on my jaundice about craft brewing's many excesses. Maybe there is hope yet.

Thank you, sir.


Company transforms disability into 'Brewability', by TaRhonda Thomas (KUSA 9)

DENVER - He’s been a maintenance worker, a landscaper, a bakery worker, a dishwasher, a hospital worker and a zoo employee. But 24-year-old Tony Fuhrman has never found in those jobs what he wants most: a full-time career.

“All of these jobs were a year or two,” he said. “I loved the jobs. I just couldn’t stay at them.”

That’s because they were either temporary or gave Tony no potential to develop a career. Living with several disabilities, Tony has seen employers who are hesitant to give him a chance.

“Not all employers are receptive to different kinds of folks,” said Tony’s mother Mary Fuhrman.

Tony is hearing-impaired and vision-impaired. His cognitive function is high, however “the joints and the muscles do not communicate consistently with the brain,” Mary said.

Looking for an opportunity for her son, Mary’s friend told her about a new company offering jobs and training to people with special needs. That company is focused on Colorado’s rapidly-growing craft brewing industry. Being not too fond of beer, at first, Tony was hesitant.

“I figured ‘you know what? It’ll get me working. I’ll go ahead and try it,’” he said. “It turned into the best thing I’ve experienced.”

Tony began working with Brewability Lab. The small brewery can employ up to eight people with special needs (age 21 and over), teaching them the brewing process from start to finish. Focused on removing the stigma of a disability, the company’s name is based on creating an ability… to brew.

___

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Craft beer, thriving communities and "winning back the neighborhood."

Here are two relevant essays about "craft" beer and community, representing a valuable component of one's better beer values system, and something that cannot be measured by the narcissism of beer ratings and crowd-sourced palaver:

"Take the selfie drinking THIS special beer, and you'll get laid!"

Whatever. This is my sweet spot: Neighborhoods, communities, and how breweries make our lives better.


Breweries are the mark of a thriving community, by Jeff Alworth (All About Beer Magazine)

... But breweries aren’t like the average industrial plant. They are people magnets, bringing folks in who are curious to try a pint of locally made IPA. In fairly short order, breweries can create little pockets of prosperity in cities that can (and often do) radiate out into the neighborhood. Pretty soon, other businesses see the bustle and consider moving in, too. It doesn’t hurt that breweries often find run-down parts of towns that have great buildings. Once a brewery moves in and refurbishes an old building, it reveals the innate promise of adjacent buildings to prospective renters.


The focus here is on how "craft" brewers optimize their own community.


Craft Beer vs. Budweiser: How Small-Brewers Are Winning Back the Neighborhood, by A.C. Shilton (Yes! Magazine)

Good beer comes from collaboration, not competition. By working together, small-brewers everywhere are giving corporations a run for their money.

... Since the beginning, craft beer has been about community. Before your neighborhood taproom started stocking hoppy IPAs, before most of us sampled nitro-infused coffee porters, before growlers were part of our dinner party lexicon—the craft beer movement was mostly a loose coalition of home brewers tinkering in their basements and sharing recipes over the beginnings of the Internet. And since beer brews in batches, they needed friends to help drink it. In living rooms and back porches across the country, the gospel of good beer was spread one kicked keg at a time.

___

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

"Changing face of Britain's pubs as locals band together to save them from closure."

Granted, the UK is different from the USA with respect to the institution of the pub -- what the word means, ownership and legalities.

It seems a bit strange that these tips (below) need reminding. Then again, in a place where pub chains dominate, and the legal climate hasn't always been consistent, you can see the possibility of landlords losing sight of what should be a central concern: Pubs as community centers.

That's always been the ideal. It's what we wanted Rich O's Public House to be 25 years ago, emulating what we thought was taken for granted in locales like the UK.

First the lead ...


Changing face of Britain's pubs as locals band together to save them from closure, by Lewis Panther (Mirror)

Popping to the local in today’s Britain can mean a whole lot more than supping a pint.

With community spirit as much in evidence as the traditional whisky, vodka and gin, you can get a massage, have your bike mended or even find someone to stitch a ­wedding dress.

The trend might shock diehards. But with pubs going out of business at the rate of 29 a week, it is proving to be one way of saving this much-loved institution, the Sunday People reports ...


 ... then the list. Can someone around New Albany PLEASE be famous for best (meat) pies?


How to keep your local thriving

Pub is The Hub support group has this advice:

COMMUNITY: Befriend the vicar, council, clubs and sports teams. Get wi-fi and put the pub on Facebook and Twitter.

FOOD & DRINK: Be famous for best pies, pints – even cleanest loos. Work with brewers, farm and butcher suppliers on ranges and pricing – and they’ll help to promote you.

PROFIT: Stocktake regularly and know your income from every single thing you sell.

DIVERSIFY: If a post office, cash machine or library is closing, could you run it from the pub?

ENTERTAIN: Stage regular quiz, open mic, karaoke and fish & chip supper nights.

TRAINING: Keep yourself and your staff regularly drilled.

STAY LEGAL: Keep up to date with latest rules. There is a lot of free advice available.

___

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Bohumil Hrabal and a night at U Zlatého tygra in Prague.


Mr. Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult is a collection of short stories by Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997), who surely ranks in the upper echelon of Czech writers in the 20th century.

Over the weekend, I finished reading these stories, which originally were written during the years immediately following WWII, when a Stalinist variation of Communism was being imposed on Czechoslovakia.

It got me thinking about all things Czech, especially beer.

Hrabal was a fascinating character, born in Brno to an unwed mother as a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian empire, raised in the interwar period of the free Czechoslovak Republic, then surviving repressive Nazi and Communist eras to die in the reconstituted Czech Republic, minus Slovakia. He outlasted them all, and followed his own muse.

Even more so than Havel, who briefly worked in a brewery as "punishment" for dissident activities, Hrabal's life seems to embrace beer. His mother and stepfather met in the Polná brewery (Pivovar Polná), and in honor of thise fact, the writer is buried in an oak coffin bearing the same brewery's inscription.

As an artist and raconteur, Hrabal is synonymous with the proud traditions of Czech pub life. The photo above shows Hrabal, Vaclav Havel and Bill Clinton at Prague's U Zlatého tygra ("At the Golden Tiger") tavern, and such was Hrabal's loyalty to it that to this very day, it devotes a section of its web site to him.

Hrabal, who was a firework of ideas and witty solutions, and who lived the glory and downfall of the cultural boom of the sixties, was surrounded by the best representatives of the intellectual and art world. This place was the intersection of the visits and visitors from all the Word. Everyone wanted to speak to Hrabal and look into the places where the plots of his novels are set.

The only beer U Zlatého tygra serves is draft Pilsner Urquell. One time in 1995, a half-dozen of us stopped there, despairing of being able to find a place to sit as a group. We spotted one man holding down a table, and I tried to ask him in gibberish Czech whether the seats were taken. He interrupted in English and invited us to sit.

No, it was not Hrabal. Our new friend was a native maker of documentary films, who had fled Czechoslovakia many years before but returned after the fall of communism. The filmmaker began explaining the history of the pub, then asked the man behind the counter if he could take us into the basement.

Off we went, threading down two flights of stairs to the cellar, where several dozen kegs of Urquell were stacked around an air conditioner of sorts, which brought the temperature down a few degrees from the subterranean norm. Back at street level, we proceeded to drain rounds of delicious beer. For all I know, Hrabal might have been in the room that night, although neither Havel nor Clinton were to be seen.

All of these memories came to the surface on Saturday, when I was killing time and amusing myself by examining the beer aisle at the Mejier on Charlestown Road.

In front of me on the shelf were twelve packs of Pilsner Urquell for approximately $17, tax included. That's a few cents less than a buck and a half for 11.2 ounces of what remains a fine lager, and maybe the best Pilsner in the world, in spite of its multinational enslavement.

I didn't pull the trigger, because I'd rather spend my money at Keg Liquors. The day will come, and quite soon. I might resume buying Urquell by the case, as I did 25 years ago.

Between Hrabal's storytelling, U Zlatého tygra's dungeon and those bottles of beer, there was a desperate craving for steamed dumplings, roasted pork and another glimpse of the Vltava.

Some sweet day.

__

Monday, March 21, 2016

THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: Euro ’85, Part 30 … Or, as it was called at the time, Leningrad.

THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: Euro ’85, Part 30 … Or, as it was called at the time, Leningrad.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

(Thirtieth in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)

---

In my early twenties, I was gripped by an interest in all things Russian. Significantly, this evolving infatuation was primarily bookish, not to be directly linked to the usual cultural suspects, like potent vodka, Slavic women, winter sports or taboo Communism.

Both hard liquor and girls were intimidating, and what’s more, they could be a dangerous temptation for an overly shy guy perpetually in search of liquid courage. This I'd learned the hard way. As for ice, snow, and frozen tundra, moderation is key; once in a while suffices, not six solid months. Small wonder the Russians drank so much.

To be fair, Communism was a demonstrable aspect of the attraction, albeit in a strictly voyeuristic sense, best assayed from afar, and not to be confused with any desire to live it. The Scandinavian socialist model struck me as a viable alternative. Just the same, I wanted to be able to say that I’d been there and seen the other kind. Professor Thackeray’s lectures on history had found a sweet spot, indeed. I was hooked.

What was it about the Tsarist Russia that managed to produce Lenin, Stalin and seven decades of so-called dialectical materialism, when even the Marxist revolutionaries themselves had been schooled to reject the possibility of it happening in such a backward place?

Yet, for all the poverty and reactionary tendencies, Tsarist times also gave the world Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Tchaikovsky and Borodin; many were the nights I struggled drunkenly through passages of obscure Russian literature (in translation) while playing and replaying Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture.

Then came the biggest question of all: After Russia’s catastrophe in the Great War – society’s meltdown, the Tsar’s murder, the bloody creation of the USSR – how did the country survive Stalin’s famines, purges and gulags, and still rally to bludgeon the Nazi dragon?

This was my father’s constant fascination, and I came to share it.

---

These many years later, it is impossible to point to a single epiphany, that one moment when the bulb was illuminated and the possibility of dipping behind the Iron Curtain as a tourist first took hold.

It took two years to save enough money to visit Europe, allowing plenty of time to plan, so it’s probably the same old story: I must have read about it somewhere.

Given that one of my essential texts was Let’s Go: Europe, a quick glance at the 1984 edition reveals a reference to the Travela agency in the chapter on Helsinki. That’s surely it, as Travela was highly recommended as an organizer of budget youth and student tours to Leningrad, the once and future St. Petersburg. I dimly recall sending for the brochure and pricing.

If memory serves, there were several longer guided Travela jaunts planned for 1985. There wouldn’t be enough time and money for any of those, and Moscow, Kiev and the Trans-Siberian railway would have to wait. However, one of several Leningrad motor coach excursions looked to fit my projected summer’s itinerary.

Thursday 1 August: Helsinki to Leningrad
Friday 2 August: Leningrad
Saturday 3 August: Leningrad
Sunday 4 August: Leningrad to Helsinki

It cost a scandalous $195, and would leave me with a very long haul from Helsinki back to Luxembourg for the flight home on the morning of the 8th. But, verily, I might not ever pass so close again. A few extra shifts at the liquor store was all it took to pre-pay my trip to Leningrad, and the wait began.

---

The only firm memories I have of Helsinki on the morning of departure involve all-consuming nervous apprehension. Tour documents listed the meeting place at Travela’s office in downtown Helsinki, easily reached by public transportation from the youth hostel. I got there early, and gradually, my fellow travelers trickled in.

It galls me to remember so little about them. Names and addresses from 1985 were lost forever in 1987, when the little blue book tumbled from my pocket in Vienna. Only broad outlines remain.

There were around 25 of us on the tour, which was expressly designed to be for English speakers. Many were Americans, but not all. The Finnish tour guide’s name was Ari. He was blonde, urbane and multi-lingual. I recall being surprised that a Mexican family was with us. Dad was a corporate executive on the cheap, just like the rest of us. They were charming.

A balding Swiss schoolteacher soon would have his star turn at the Peter & Paul Fortress. An Australian my age named Mark, who had been away from home for a year and a half, working his way across the globe, tried mightily to get me into trouble throughout our stay -- and almost succeeded.

The bus eventually loaded, and away we went. I experienced a thinly suppressed panic, borne of too many Cold War movies, upon arrival at the Finno-Soviet border, where several uniformed guards came aboard to examine passports and visas. The latter were procured by Travela, this being a prime selling point of such a tour; otherwise, the process was said to be exhausting.

Several pieces of luggage were removed and searched, but overall, it was slightly less of a hassle than I’d expected, although within eyesight was a VW van with West German license plates. It was parked over what looked like a grease pit, and seemingly was being disassembled bolt by bolt.

We made good time until the outskirts of Leningrad. Few cars were using the highway, and the landscape was rural and wooded, reminiscent of Michigan. There was a rest stop in the middle of a dreary town by the main road near Vyborg, in a region that once belonged to Finland before being extracted by Uncle Joe in WWII.

Our stopover offered a first glimpse at the bizarre institution of the Beriozka shop, albeit a poorly stocked example compared with the ones about to be plundered in Leningrad. At the Beriozka, only foreign currency was legal tender. Rubles weren’t accepted at all.

The reason we’d been discouraged from indulging in black market currency transactions on the street wasn’t so much their illegality (small-scale trading posed far greater dangers for Soviets than foreigners) as the plain fact that having amassed a fortune in rubles, there’d be absolutely nothing of quality upon which to spend them.

By design, the quality goods went to the Beriozka, because the hard currency spent in the Beriozka went straight to the government, without grubby middlemen – capitalists, and all that.

When departing the USSR, you were not allowed to cash rubles back into hard currency without a receipt (which black market traders obviously didn’t give), and it wasn’t legal to export rubles.

This is the reason why foreigners indulging in black market currency swaps inevitably wound up splurging at better restaurants. At least there one could eat, drink and be exceedingly sloppy – and invite half the tour group along for the ride for what it would cost (in dollars) to dine at McDonald’s back home.

Whatever this place near Vyborg was called, it was a thoroughly depressing locale. Older buildings were chipped and faded, and newer ones built with pre-fabricated concrete sections that looked nothing like similar structures in Western Europe. It was my first good look at the “rabbit hutches,” as the Czech dissident Vaclav Havel described these ubiquitous housing towers.

There weren’t many people on the street, and the ones I saw didn’t hustle and bustle. They drooped and shuffled. My memory isn’t a perfect snapshot, but it’s a reliable recollection of moroseness. It was a shock.

However, there’s an important corollary, because these people surely were flesh and blood humans like us, not the ideological automatons depicted by the hardcore patriots back home. This counted for something, didn't it?

On the outskirts of Leningrad, the rabbit hutches began multiplying, appearing like M.C. Escher mazes viewed from afar. Near the waterway, industrial complexes squatted, their messy dishevelment punctuated by clusters of heavy work cranes.

Impenetrable propaganda displays appeared on billboards and buildings. Eventually, I’d learn the Cyrillic alphabet. In the interim, many of us aboard the bus practiced simple words and phrases: Please, thank you, beer and toilet.

Perhaps seven hours after leaving Helskini, maybe a bit longer, the bus finally stopped at the Hotel Sovetskaya. I found a more recent description of the hotel, which still exists under a different name.


The Sovetskaya Hotel is located on the south edge of the historical center of St. Petersburg, near the intersection of Lermontovsky Prospekt and the Fontanka River. Rooms on the upper floors of the hotel feature fantastic views of the city center with the domes of St. Isaac's Cathedral, the Trinity Cathedral and St. Nicholas' Cathedral dominating the skyline.


The hotel was reasonably modern, of 1960s vintage, and from the window of Room 1031 (exactly how did I merit a single room?), there was indeed a commanding view of downtown. St. Isaac’s Cathedral’s gold dome looked so close as to be just up the block, but as my feet were about to learn, it was two-to-three miles away by foot, as was Nevsky Prospekt and the other main historic sites.

The room was musty and bedraggled. Well, I’d seen worse. An old radio occupied much of a worn tabletop. It had two knobs, one to turn it on and off, and the other to adjust the volume. The radio dial was tuned to a single frequency. The channel could not be changed.

I clicked the button. Knowledge of Russian was not required to glean that these two men were talking about Lenin, primarily because after every couple dozen words, “V.I. Lenin” would be repeated. It was like listening to the Communist Gospel Hour, hypnotizing and metronomic.

There it was. I’d finally crossed a border too far, and was being brainwashed right there, in my hotel room. Would I become part of a secret cell, whispering passwords?

What if I wasn’t even allowed to leave the USSR?

Was my room phone bugged?

It didn’t matter. I never learned how to use the damn thing, anyway.

---

Previously:

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 29 … Helsinki beneath my feet, but Leningrad on my mind.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 28 … A Finnish detour to Tampere for beer and sausages.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 27 … Stockholm's blonde ambition, with or without mead-balls.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 26 … The Hansa brewery tour, and a farewell to Norway.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 25 … Frantic pickled Norway.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 24 … An aspiring “beer hunter” amid Carlsberg’s considerable charms.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 23 … A fleeting first glimpse of Copenhagen.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 22 … It's how the tulips were relegated.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 21 … A long day in Normandy, though not "The Longest Day."

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 20 … War stories, from neutral Ireland to Omaha Beach.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 19 … Sligo, Knocknarea, Guinness and Freddie.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 18 … Irish history with a musical chaser.

The PC: Euro '85, Part 17 ... A first glimpse of Ireland.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 16 … Lizard King in the City of Light.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 15 … The traveler at 55, and a strange interlude.

The PC: We pause Euro '85 to remember the Mathäser Bierstadt in Munich.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 14 … Beers and breakfast in Munich.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 13 … Tears of overdue joy at Salzburg's Augustiner.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 12 … Stefan Zweig and his world of yesterday.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 11: My Franz Ferdinand obsession takes root.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 10: Habsburgs, history and sausages in Vienna.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 9 … Milan, Venice and a farewell to Northern Italy.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 8 … Pecetto idyll, with a Parisian chaser.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 7 … An eventful detour to Pecetto.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 6 … When in Rome, critical mass.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.

The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … Where it all began.

_

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Middens attest to when oysters were peanuts, with beer.

Photo credit: East Falls Historical Society (below).

To Google the words "oyster beer history" is to uncover thousands of references to oyster stout, the vast majority of them from recent beer-centric times.

There's nothing wrong with that, but it isn't the point. I'm not thinking about pairing oysters with stout, or using them is a direct, vestigial or apocryphal manner to brew stout. Rather, I'm thinking about oysters as daily food, and how local beer drinking culture came to be built around this framework --especially on America's eastern seaboard.


The Voluminous Shell Heaps Hidden in Plain Sight All Over NYC, by Natalie Zarrelli (Atlas Obscura)

 ... These huge, ancient heaps of shells are called oyster middens, and they’ve fascinated people for centuries. If you didn’t know better, the word “midden” might sound homey and adorable, like a lush green burrow for some fuzzy, ground-dwelling animal, but you’d be mistaken. A midden is an archaeological term for a pile of trash left by humans long gone, and oyster middens are some of the oldest and largest piles of intact garbage dating from after the late ice age.


More specifically, here is the view from Philadelphia.


When oysters were peanuts, by Steve Fillmore (East Falls Historical Society)

They sure loved their oysters at the Hohenadel Brewery on Indian Queen Lane. We found hundreds of shells at the site this morning, unearthed by a construction crew digging up the site of the old brewery for condominiums.

That many fresh oysters would be worth thousands of dollars today at an upscale center city restaurant, but in 19th century bars, oysters were the peanuts of the day. They were the cheap eats that kept customers coming back for beer ...

... In Philadelphia and its suburbs, oyster consumption averaged approximately 6 million oysters a week throughout the 1870s. Cookbooks from the time list more than 40 oyster recipes and neighborhood oyster bars were more prevalent than pizza places or coffeehouses are today. In fact, over 2,400 Philadelphia establishments (hotels, oyster houses, restaurants, and beer saloons) served oysters, in addition to 158 peddlers and curb-side stands.


New York City remains the locale closely associated with oysters and beer. Tedesco's description of a project to reintroduce oysters to the area draws from a book by Mark Kurlansky, whose topics have included salt, cod and early 20th-century food in addition to oysters.


A Billion Oysters Tell the History of New York, by Karen Tedesco (The Village Voice)

Picture yourself on a boat on the Hudson River: taking in the view, eating copious piles of wood-fire-roasted oysters, and swigging generous drafts of locally brewed beer. It might remind you of last weekend's party aboard a schooner in Lower Manhattan. It's also an apt description of a typical feast in seventeenth-century New York ...

 ... The waters of New York Harbor, with their fluctuating balance of salt and fresh waters, allowed oysters to thrive. As natural, living filters, the mollusks not only kept the estuary healthy and clean, but were an abundant delicacy, eaten with gusto by the Native American Lenape and colonial settlers alike. For thousands of years, oysters were plentiful in the brackish waters all around the land that became New York City; some ancient piles of shells, known as middens, date to 6950 B.C.

Over the centuries, oysters continued to play a huge part in New York's economy. According to Kurlansky, nineteenth-century New Yorkers "consumed as many as a million oysters a day," and they were shipped to far-flung aficionados in Chicago, San Francisco, Paris, and London. The New York oyster industry survived, somewhat miraculously, into the early twentieth century. Hundreds of years of raw sewage, industrial pollution, and large-scale dredging in the harbor contributed to the decline of oyster habitats, little by little, until they disappeared completely. In 1927, Kurlansky writes, "the last of the Raritan Bay beds was closed, marking the end of oystering in New York City."

_

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Lew Bryson: "It was pretty much an article of faith that the very Beer Gods were German, with maybe a small antechamber in the pantheon for the Czechs."


The first week of March was difficult.

Seven years on the Brewers of Indiana Guild was a hard habit to break, and while my final BIG conference and annual meeting was wonderful, time before and after it spent in mourning wasn't conducive to writing about beer. Slowly, the recovery has taken hold. Day by day, you know.

I kept this article back, thinking there might be something to say, but Lew doesn't need my supplementary testimony.

I'll add only that these past two or three years has been about rediscovering my inner lager. As in so many other areas of personal interest, freeing my brain from the constant stress of beer wars-laden trench warfare is having an amazingly salutary effect.

We're visiting Tallinn, Estonia in April, with a side excursion to Finland. I've done the research and know which bar and breweries are "craft." They won't be the only ones I sample.

THE HOTTEST NEW THING: LAGERS!, by Lew Bryson (All About Beer Magazine)

 ... Why crown lager with this success in craft beer “culture,” on the craft beer “scene,” in the craft beer “niche”? Could it be lager’s smooth body, purity of flavor, or the way cold-aged lager tastes great at that natural maturation temperature? Maybe it’s the way lager is just good to drink and doesn’t crush your tastebuds with bitterness, or draw up your entire oral cavity with astringent burnt malt character, or pucker you up like a love-struck chimp with acidity and loosen your bowels with bacteria? (Don’t worry, I signed the loyalty pledge: “I, Lew Bryson, love IPAs, imperial stouts, sours and wild ales. They are the bestest.”) Could it be because we just needed another beer to crown as “the next IPA”?

__

Friday, March 18, 2016

Diary: On the hip edginess of crappy multinational beer.

Am I the only surly curmudgeon, long of jagged tooth and howling at the Blue Moon, who notices a certain disparity of aspirations when an eatery takes great pains to explain to me its commitment to local ingredients, and to uphold its fidelity to the authenticity of regional cuisines (prepared with local ingredients), and sets the bar quite high in all respects but has the chops to pull it off ... but still has one or more BudMillerCoors industrial products on tap, or worst yet, Pabst in a can, because having a cheaper multinational around is kinda hip and edgy and shit, even if contradicts every last one of the eatery's other valid bullet points about walking the walk?

I'll stop there.

I see it a lot these days, and it's annoying. Pabst in a can? Great. Let's hope you're buying off the Sysco truck.

__

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Join me on a Session Beer Day Brewery Crawl on Thursday, April 7.

As Lew Bryson notes, Session Beer Day is only 20 days away, on Thursday, April 7.

For the past few years, my mission in beery life has been to propagandize the merits of session consciousness, and toward this noble end, I tried mightily to introduce the notion of Session Head at NABC's two locations.

Session Head was the symbolic final act of Gravity Head, with the pendulum swinging from the heavier wintry end of the spectrum to the lighter (in alcoholic terms) side of the aisle, as preparation for warmer weather in springtime.

I'm proud of what we were able to accomplish with Session Head. As far as I'm concerned, it's one of my more brilliant ideas -- ever.

However, most of you know by now that pending the outcome of the buyout saga, I've been "fired" by my business partners. I'm no longer in a position to rule on topics like Session Head, and it's a mystery to me whether or not NABC will stage it this year.

No matter, because I'm staging my own personal Session Head 2016.

As noted here previously, the idea suits both my preference for flavorful, lower-gravity beers, and a love of walking -- as exercise and philosophy, rolled into one.

On April 7, I'll start before lunch (circa 11:00 a.m.) and traverse downtown Louisville on foot, much like Leopold Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses, walking from brewery to brewery and having a session beer at each. Most usually have at least one 4.5% choice on draft.

The brewery list, traveling roughly west to east, would be:

Falls City
Gordon Biersch
BBC 3rd Street
Against the Grain
Goodwood
Akasha

I've yet to check opening hours and other details, but there's time for all that. I'll be drinking "small beer in large glasses" (Lew's words), and I won't be driving. If this Session Beer Day Brewery Crawl can be managed without a single "Session IPA," it would suit me just fine.

If Rick's still open to some form of ceremonial late afternoon/early evening observance at Akasha, it would be wonderful. Other Louisville breweries too far away for walking might be able to sell session-strength kegs to Akasha for duty on the guest taps; it's just an idea, and it strictly is Rick's call.

Yes, it's a work day. So is Friday. However, if you're interested in blowing off work to join me, let me know. The more, the merrier.

Or: The less, the merrier. It depends on one's outlook. Remember, this trek is an all-weather event. Bring an umbrella if necessary.

I hope to see you somewhere on Session Beer Day, 2016.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Slovenian beer fountains I saw back in 1987 were a bit different in conception, but to each his own.

The immediate pretext for this post is a news item that got much play earlier this year, then disappeared amid the nation's vastly reduced attention span.

This Slovenian Town Is All About Beer, So It’s Building a Beer Fountain, by Aarian Marshall (City Lab)

Could fountains of beer be a business proposition? That’s the bet of a Slovenian town called Žalec, population 20,000, which has announced plans to build a pragmatic monument to one of its best known exports: alcohol.

According to the BBC, by way of the Slovenian paper Dnevnik, the proposal was given the go-ahead this week with help from Mayor Janko Kos, who’s argued that beer fountains will be a tourist draw.

I had to look at the map: Žalec looks to be about 40 miles northwest of Ljubljana, toward Maribor. These are famous brewing places names in Slovenia, a place I've been only once.

Following is an excerpt from an unfinished travelogue ("Red Stars, Black Mountains") about my 1987 journey through then-Yugoslavia. Traveling stupidly on an evening train from Trieste, in Italy, Ljubljana was to be my first glimpse of the country, which was torn asunder by violence only four years later.

Slovenia came out of it largely unscathed, and I'd love to make it back there.

---


Returning to the Trieste train station in early evening with a slight glow from restrained dinnertime libations, I suffered the first gentle lancing of my sanguine mood. Rounding the corner to the side platform, I saw the waiting, rusted, elemental, purely functional Yugoslav train with only three passenger cars; sans frills, one might say, and far older than the trains I'd been riding in Italy, Switzerland and Austria.

It was far dirtier, too, and I dreaded that first peek inside the all-important WCs (restrooms). Even on the most modern trains of the time, with the possible exception of the French TGVs, there was a direct path between commode and the tracks over which one was traveling – making for an interesting experience when flushing in cold weather.

Clean loos were more tolerable under the overall circumstances, but as I would soon learn, hygiene was about to become variable, although in fairness to the Slovenes, it was a phenomenon that grew in proportion to southward travel in Yugoslavia.

Given that my only previous trip into the East Bloc had been made aboard a sleek Finnish tour bus, this opening glimpse of a Yugoslav train very much set the tone for what lay ahead in terms of transport. Eastern Europe was going to be a bit different.

People began arriving to board this so-called "express," and many of them were encumbered with bags, bundles and boxes. Trieste is a port town, and a border town, and the city's final geographical resting place was much in dispute just after World War II ground down. Eventually matters coalesced, the powers that be bartered around remote conference tables, Yugoslavia's leader Marshall Tito (Josip Broz, a Croat by birth) backed away, and Trieste remained Italian, whence it had become only after being forcibly detached from the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire at the First World War's close.

Consequently, a sizable population of ethnic Slovenes became Italian citizens, most living in the Trieste's suburbs and hinterlands. Ethnic Slovenes like these appeared to be the outbound weekend riders on the train to Ljubljana, and it was easy to surmise that most were visiting relatives on the other side. Little Italian was spoken apart from one conductor, who did not pass through the border check.

It was as though the dilapidated Trieste rail siding was actually an extension of Yugoslav territory without the intervening kilometers. More people got on the train than got off as we rumbled slowly east, into the trademark blackened mountains for which the Balkans are celebrated and feared, these being oddly brightened by the sun setting behind us.

For me, the border crossing itself was cursory, and my passport merited little more than a glance. The visa inside it was duly stamped by the youthful, uniformed guard with the rifle slung over his shoulder, and yet it wasn't threatening. It all seemed unusually relaxed, a condition seldom to be repeated in the remainder of the Bloc that summer. The locals aboard had it somewhat harder, and their packages were inspected rather closely, but there were no incidents. Quite a few of them debarked at numerous stops following the border passage.

In the end, it took three hours to make the trip, and finally, just shy of 22:30, the train shuddered to a halt at Ljubljana's central station. Excited, I bounded down the steps into a warm and humid night, hoisted my pack, turned to follow the crowd, and was greeted by what might have been the outskirts of the Woodstock gathering, circa 1969, minus Yasgur’s farm.

In fact, a major league bacchanal was in progress.

Chorus lines of drunken young men were chugging bottled beer, the liquid streaming down their faces as they weaved across the rails singing verses of unknown songs, with nary a woman in sight. To my right, a group of them were merrily urinating on a rail yard wall. Some were half-heartedly wrestling with each other while others cheered.

Others were projectile vomiting, veritable fountains of pivo.

By contrast, the train station personnel, although obviously harried by the mayhem, seemed to look upon it with remarkably blank faces, as though it was a weekly performance they'd seen many times before. The scene was destined to remain a mystery for a few days, until I was on the train from Ljubljana to Zagreb, at which point my seatmate and new acquaintance, Rady, explained that the party I'd witnessed was in fact a regular occurrence.

The revelers were the new class of military draftees, celebrating their final night of freedom before shipping out to serve the Motherland for two years. But I didn't know this yet. Standing on the platform and watching the crazy party prompted a question.

Why the hell had I come here?

As throngs of thoroughly inebriated future Yugoslav soldiers milled through Ljubljana's otherwise deserted train station, I found myself an object of curiosity and attention, although it must be said that none of the scrutiny was threatening, and the general mood remained one of fraternity party revelry. Perhaps I was the only backpacker on the scene.

Picking my way gingerly through the ranks of the fallen, and avoiding numerous evil smelling puddles, I scanned the strange directional signs in an effort to locate the path into the station's nerve center. Two stood out: "Informacija," which I judged to be "information," and a pictogram of bank notes and coins.

I'd passed from Italy to Yugoslavia, and also from lira to dinars. In pre-Euro times, every border crossing required exchanging money into new currencies. In 1987, there were few if any ATMs in Western Europe, certainly none in the East Bloc, and the credit card in my neck pouch would prove to be almost useless in the East outside of special "hard currency" shops.

Instead, one changed money the old fashioned way, with actual dollars or American Express traveler's checks. I needed to save my small denomination American banknotes for use as wheel-greasers in tight spots, so if the station exchange couldn't or wouldn't trade dinars for Am-Ex, I'd be looking at a cashless night crashing with the crazy recruits.

The man behind the only populated window miraculously spoke a bare minimum of English and was able to answer my questions. Yes, he would cash a traveler's check. No, he could not help me find accommodations. No (gesturing at the cacophony), the baggage check room was quite full. He began slapping down one hundred dinar notes, one after the other, until the pile was an inch high. Not a bad rate: $100 per inch.

It was late, but I had a guidebook, and the search for lodgings commenced on foot. Public transportation had shut down, and there was a scarcity of streetlights, but I managed to navigate a half-mile to the first university-affiliated youth hostel. There were padlocks on the door.

The second hostel listed defied all efforts to locate it, there was no one on the street to ask even if I'd been inclined to do so, and it was well after midnight, so I reversed course and got back to the train station area, where I remembered there being a hotel of the more conventional variety.

A desk clerk finally responded to my repeated buzzing and offered the non-negotiable terms: Roughly a quarter-inch of my hard-earned dinar wad, or more than twice the rate I had been expecting to pay for a bed, but notions of a shower and bed were strong, and I agreed, though only for one night. On Saturday morning, I'd visit the youth & student travel desk and inquire after cheaper digs.

I did, and found a $10 bunk in three-bed room. The weekend was now free for exploring Ljubljana -- a sister city of Cleveland, Ohio – by foot.

Then as now, Slovenia seemed out of place, tied to Yugoslavia but far more Central European than Balkan. The hilly setting in Ljubljana reminded me of Salzburg, in Austria, and the red tiled roofs were a Mediterranean flourish resting atop imperial-era Habsburg buildings.

There were stone dragons lining the old downtown bridge and a market in the square; tarnished copper stains and chipped columns; the widespread occurrence of public spitting; and a curious aroma in the air that eventually registered as coal smoke.

In the old town, there was a pizzeria by the river, and I splurged on a small pie accompanied by draft Union Pivo, the hometown brewery, which I managed to locate on one of my walks. However, it was more cost effective to drink from the bottle. On Sunday, in despair that none of the stores would be open, I strolled past a line of people waiting to enter one that was doing business, later emerging with three half-liters of Union to be consumed while sitting on a park bench gazing at the hilltop castle.

Where the suburbs began, so did the lines of unpainted gray housing blocks that were Yugoslavia's solution to warehousing its postwar population. In these neighborhoods there were more examples of commerce than might be imagined, mostly products being vended from wooden kiosks: Cosmetics, street food and newspapers. Each neighborhood of housing blocks had a section built in for ground-level shopping, drinking and dining, with variable selections of goods.

On Monday, I returned to the station, bustling not with drunkards but daily commuters, and bought a train ticket for Zagreb, Croatia … and a fateful meeting.

__

Monday, March 14, 2016

THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: Two decades of Beer Corner barrels.

THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: Two decades of Beer Corner barrels.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

My first Great American Beer Festival was in 1997, and it proved to be a liberating experience.

By tradition and design, the GABF is about beer brewed right here in America, as opposed to imported brands, which at the time still comprised the bulk of better beer options in metropolitan Louisville.

It always was my goal to help shift this balance. Denver was far ahead of Louisville, and seeing what worked in Denver was an invaluable opportunity.

My GABF tickets came through the good offices of Bluegrass Brewing Company, and I dimly recall this as being advantageous, as they included access to certain perks not available to general admission ticket holders.

It transpired that one of these was a tasting of “vintage” beers, including a vertical Alaskan Smoked Porter selection. Imagine my surprise when I was seated at a table with the late, great beer writer Fred Eckhardt. He seemed to be a perfectly regular guy, but then again, almost everyone was.

It was the primeval, pre-rock-star-brewer phase of the revolution. Very quaint, indeed.

Eventually I had the chance to ask Eckhardt a question: What did he consider the best beer he’d ever beer sampled at the GABF?

After mulling for a moment, his answer was Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout, and in retrospect, it seems surprising to learn that BCS was only brewed for the first time in 1994, a scant three years before my chat with Eckhardt.

Originally it was Goose Island’s 1,000th batch, and as schoolchildren in Siberia know by now, it came about by aging Imperial Stout in used bourbon barrels brought to Chicago … from Kentucky, of course.

Barrel-aging was a suitably exotic notion in 1997, although back in Louisville, the dawning age of “microbrewing” already had produced an instance of similar experimentation.

In 1994 at BBC’s original St. Matthews brewpub, brewmaster David Pierce filled a used bourbon barrel with Doppelbock and allowed it to sit outside during a wintry snap. Water freezes before alcohol, so voila! BBC barrel-aged Eisbock was the result.

I’m not sure any of it ever passed my lips, but that’s okay. The GABF tickets more than made up for it.

---

My most recent assignment as columnist for Food & Dining Magazine was a profile of Louisville’s Goodwood Brewing Company, to be published in the May/June/July issue.


Goodwood’s identity dates to 2015 and a rebranding of the entity once noted for brewing Bluegrass Brewing Company’s beers under license for packaging and distribution. The brewery’s new name is fully intentional, meant to inform beer lovers of the roles played by wood and water.

“We became Goodwood because we are known throughout the region and industry as experts in barrel aged products,” says Goodwood’s CEO, Ted Mitzlaff.


While researching this essay, I came across a relic of past barrel-aged aspirations. A newer generation of visitors to the “beer corner” of Main and Clay in downtown Louisville might not know that “craft” brewing actually began there almost two decades ago.


Something's brewing on East Main -- or will be soon, by Terry Boyd (Louisville Business First; September 8, 1997)

A 30-year-old Pennsylvania native plans to brew and distribute bottled beer in Louisville for the first time since Falls City Brewing Co. left town for Evansville, Ind., in 1978.

But, unlike brewpub/restaurant operations that combine suds and grub, his new venture is only about wholesale beer, says Paul Hummer III, president and brew master of Pipkin Brewing Co.


Pipkin operated from 1998 through 2001, when BBC bought it and launched its own production brewery at the Beer Corner. In fact, Pipkin had been contract-brewing and bottling BBC brands prior to the changeover.

In retrospect, it’s easy to understand what happened. Pipkin was financed, planned and constructed to be profitable at a theoretical production capacity projected to be reached quickly. It never got there, with familiar ramifications.

Trust me. I know these all too well.

Pale Ale and Brown Ale were intended as Pipkin flagships from the outset, later augmented by Porter and a few gimmicks tied to local universities, and when sales of these brands were too slow, contract brewing was introduced for cash flow.

But the ultimate problem with contract brewing is that it enhances the value of someone else’s brands, not your own.

Many have since been compelled to learn Pipkin’s lessons: Whether the start-up capital comes from a financial institution, a helpful lottery-winning angel or the founding family’s own pockets, there is an unforgiving logic to its expenditure. Keeping one’s nostrils barely above water is better than drowning, and yet subsistence offers no margin for error – and no ability to leverage necessary further investments.

It is a painfully familiar sensation.

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Around the year 2000, Pipkin borrowed a page from the Goose Island playbook and released a Bourbon Barrel Stout. For many of us, it was Pipkin’s best ever beer. I’m not entirely sure who conceived and shepherded this idea, but my guess is brewer Paul Philippon, future mastermind of the Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery in North Carolina.

That’s right. Philippon brewed for Pipkin.

I’ll never forget my reaction. How could this not be the single best idea in local brewing history? Bourbon Barrel Stout, brewed in Kentucky and aged in bourbon barrels from Kentucky. Just imagine if the brewery partnered with the distillery and cross-marketed the results?

At the time, it annoyed me that Pipkin Bourbon Barrel Stout was a one-time seasonal release. I told anyone who’d listen that it should be the only beer Pipkin brewed; after all, there was ample warehouse space at the Beer Corner. Clear ‘em out, stack 'em high, and go all in.

Now I can see that Pipkin’s precarious situation surely precluded such a marshaling of resources. A barrel-aged program would have required substantial outlays of time and money, and the brewery had a surplus of neither. It’s a fond memory nonetheless, and Pipkin Bourbon Barrel Stout should be remembered as a Louisville trailblazer.

In 2006, BBC began brewing its Jefferson’s Reserve Bourbon Stout (the distillery tie-in later ceased). Alltech’s Bourbon Barrel Ale was launched around the same time. Bourbon Barrel Stout was BBC’s mainstay in markets outside Kentucky, and remains the basis of Goodwood Bourbon Barrel Stout.

In 2016, wood “touches” every beer Goodwood brews, whether by aging “in” (a barrel) or “on” (added to the process).

The rest of the Goodwood story? It's coming in May.

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March 7: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: Can I get a “do-over” on Naughty Girl?

February 22: The PC: Beef Steak and Porter always made good belly mortar, but did America’s “top” steakhouses get the memo?

February 15: The PC: Swill in youthful times of penury and need.

When the Euro '85 series returns: Leningrad USSR. 

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Thursday, March 10, 2016

America's restaurant workers and Saru Jayaraman's book, Forked.


It's only a matter of time until New Albanians are overheard saying, "Hey, did you know there's a bookstore at Taco Steve's?"

Ten years ago in downtown New Albany, there were three, maybe four, independent eateries, and another couple of bars serving simple meals. Today, the number is in the vicinity of 17 or 18 -- even I can't keep track, and more are in the planning stages. Perhaps a dozen among these have at least a few good beers on tap.

It's unlike anything this town has ever seen. One might delve into numerous topics of discussion pertaining to New Albany's food and drink boom, but there is one truly fundamental consideration. Who is doing the work and filling these jobs?

Following are two links about one book. First, from Destinations Booksellers.


“Forked” Examines Plight of Restaurant Workers

Downtown New Albany may have one of the highest concentrations of dining establishments anywhere and there’s no sign of the growth tapering off. Yet, if local news reports can be believed, it’s becoming harder and harder to find workers willing to take jobs in this corner of the hospitality industry.

Forked: A New Standard for American Dining critiques less-examined aspects of restaurant worker exploitation, considering such topics as food preparers who must work while sick because of benefit limits and sexual harassment endured by tip-dependent servers.

The workers and the entrepreneurs powering New Albany’s restaurant explosion may well want to add this book to their shelves.


To conclude, NPR's take.


'Forked' Rates Restaurants On How They Treat Their Workers, by Tracie McMillan (NPR)

Saru Jayaraman may be restaurant obsessed, but don't call her a foodie. She's the founding director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a national organization that advocates for better wages and working conditions for restaurant workers. She's also published several studies in legal and policy journals as director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California-Berkeley.

The combination of grassroots and ivory tower makes Jayaraman arguably one of the country's leading experts on what it's like to live as a restaurant worker in America.

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Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Musings on Falls City, standards of longevity, and that strange word "craft."


From the outset, let's be clear. I'm a big fan of what Falls City is doing these days. My wife and I like Over the 9, the Falls City/Old 502 gastropub.

We took friends there recently, and they also enjoyed it. Verily, by doing business where it does, Falls City is playing a leading role in reconnecting Portland with downtown, and this matters to me a great deal.

Falls City's latest bottle releases, Kentucky Common and Easy Goer Session IPA, are 4% abv and 4.5% abv, respectively, and that's huge; finally, there is ballyhoo about session-strength releases, and I'll be drinking a lot of the Kentucky Common.

To summarize, I'm coming from a position of friendship and appreciation.

This said, a headline at Louisville Business First is slightly misleading, and with requisite gentleness and scrupulous objectivity, I'd like to explain why.

One of the city's oldest craft beer breweries is rolling out the biggest product line expansion in its history

Before I tell you, let's look at the story from last week's roll-out.


 ... The brewery is adding a new year-round offering, Kentucky Common, which is inspired by the city's pre-Prohibition bourbon industry, along with a family of seasonal beers, including Easy Goer Session IPA, according to WLKY-TV.

Kentucky Common has ingredients that are similar to a bourbon distiller's mash, and that style is one that originated in Louisville, the story said.

Cezary Wlodarczyk, Falls City's CEO and president, said he hopes the beer will be offered at Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington and Churchill Downs in Louisville. Wlodarczyk said the beer is iconic and deserves a presence in the state.


The headline identifies Falls City as one of Louisville's "oldest craft beer breweries." Allow me to observe that this is a tad far-fetched, although Louisville Business First merely takes its cues from Falls City's own web site.


In 1905 a group of bartenders and grocery store owners had had enough with being forced to buy, serve, and sell beer produced by a local beer monopoly. So they got together and created Falls City Beer. At that moment of rebellion and independence, Louisville’s first craft beer was born.


And ...


Craft beer before craft beer was cool. 


In fairness, I've embraced a cynical, post/pre-craft position with regard to the use of this word, and it is quite possible that "craft" currently possesses almost no coherent definition whatever. Still, as a functional curmudgeon, I strive for accuracy. In this instance, verifiable chronology is available to assist us.

  • The original Falls City Brewing Company operated in Louisville from 1905 through 1978.
  • The original American "microbrewery" was New Albion, founded in 1976.
  • In 1984, the word "craft" was used for the first time, and the New York Times did not use the word until 1997.
  • The "old" Falls City, which had nothing whatever to do with micro- or craft-brewing, was contract-brewed in Pittsburgh until 2007.
  • Today's Falls City began contract-brewing in 2010 and brews on-site, too.

If 2010 represents Falls City's contemporary inception, then it was preceded in Louisville by at least seven other breweries during the period of "craft" beer's ascendancy -- some lasting, some morphing, others folding. BBC and Cumberland Brewery predate the "new" Falls City by 17 and 10 years, respectively.

A brewery reborn in 2010, while "craft" by most any sensible modern definition, is not one of the city's "oldest" in the same chronological sense.

Concurrently, a brewery originally born in 1905 hardly can be referred to as a "craft" brewery, since neither the usage nor the concept existed then.

The "new" Falls City has brewed certain of its beers on site, in Louisville, at two locations since 2011 or thereabouts, with a short break when the Barrett Avenue taproom closed and the brewery was reinstalled at the present 10th Street location. Flagship brands continue to be contract-brewed elsewhere.

All this is admirable, and as noted, I'm a fan. But Falls City, while "craft," is not one of Louisville's "oldest" "craft" breweries.

Of course, perhaps we might dispense with "craft" altogether and move forward with the reclamation of good, real and true beer. Falls City certainly is helping fulfill this mandate, because as Cresant Smith rightly observes in her assessment of last week's brand introduction, Falls City's Kentucky Common is delicious ... as well as historically accurate.


Falls City Brewing Co Expanded Line-Up of Beers (Louisville Beer Dot Com)

I was able to try the Kentucky Common and it was very easy to drink. It very well matched the Beer Judging Certification Program standards of what a Kentucky Common should taste like. Medium amber in color, moderately grainy/corn aroma with a medium sweet flavor. Bready, toffee notes and gentle carbonation. It finishes semi-dry and clean.


Note that Over the 9 will be my first stop for Session Day 2016.

Come drink beer with me on Session Beer Day, April 7, 2016.


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