“Where have you been?”

downloadI stopped by my local beer distributor and those were the first words out of their mouth. “Where have you been?”  After thinking about it for a moment I realized he was right.  I hadn’t dropped by more than once the whole summer.  Of course some of the time I had been away, but the real reason for my absence was that this summer I fell in love with bourbon.

It started out innocently enough.  About five years ago my aunt brought us a bottle of Blanton’s and we were immediately smitten.  This will come as no surprise to most bourbon drinkers since Blanton’s is pretty high up the food chain selling for $60 or more.  To put it in beer terms it’s kind of like starting out with a St Bernardus 12.  Of course we didn’t know any of that at the time.. we just knew we liked it.

In time we started to try other, less pricy bottles like Four Roses and Jefferson’s.  It wasn’t long until you could find a bottle bourbon in our cabinet all the time.   In time rye joined the party as well.

IMAG00177By 2014 that gift of a single bottle had ballooned into a regular part of our routine.  But beer was still far and away my go to beverage.  All that changed this August.  In the course of a single week bourbon managed to eclipse beer as my evening libation.

So what lead to such a radical conversion?  The answer was an amazing six day trip to Kentucky.   With some expert guidance from the great Lew Bryson, my wonderful wife managed to map out a way for us to hit 11 distilleries in 5 days plus squeeze in a trip to Mammoth Cave to boot.  I’ll go into more details about where we went and what we learned in a future post.

But this brings me to perhaps the most ineffable, yet also most important, reason why that week altered my preferences in a way I would have never thought possible… namely that the love of bourbon is something my wife and I now share.  Don’t get me wrong- she likes beer just fine.  But in over 25 years together she has never, and I mean never, showed the kind of enthusiasm for discussing and analyzing beer that she does for bourbon and rye.

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Said lovely wife dipping her finger into a fermentation vessel at Buffalo Trace

That added value is what finally toppled beer from its long held zenith.  That few minutes of discussion about which of the now many different bottles we’d like to share that night or the enjoyment of trying something new together… well it really enhances the experience and makes an already delicious beverage all the more enjoyable.

I confess that I am still getting used to this new order of things.  At times when I go to the liquor cabinet for a night cap, it feels like I am cheating on my poor beer fridge out in the garage.  And who knows?  In time beer might just climb its way back to the top.  But for now both my beer fridge and my local distributor will have to get used to seeing less of me.

Going on vacation….. just to wait in line

I have oft been accused of trying to structure vacations around beer.  While my wife does an amazing job with the more critical logistics of accommodation, transportation and cultural highlights, I tend to focus on locating breweries and opportunities to sample beer that I can’t get at home.  My annual trip to see cousins in Vermont is no exception.

It’s no secret that Vermont boasts one heck of a beer scene.  Names like Heady Topper, Lawson’s Liquids, Hill Farmstead and now Fiddlehead get geeks very excited.  But with only 3 full days in state and the need to actually spend some time with family meant that there was no way I could hit them all.  Looking over schedules and maps I determined I could hit the weekly Lawson’s release in relatively nearby Woodstock and then two days later make the two hour trip (each way) to Hill Farmstead.  Fiddlehead would have to wait for next year.

Here’s the thing.  Both trips meant waiting in line.  Lawson’s went on sale at noon and when I arrived at 11:40 there were already 6 people in line ahead of me.  Looking into the cooler I could see that I would definitely get some Sip of Sunshine but it was not clear that I would score some Super Session #2.

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While my cousin held my place I browsed the bottle shop and loaded up with local brews.  The line for Lawson’s kept on growing. At 11:55 the clerk took pity on us and started selling.  My cousin helped me to double my score getting his own four pack of Sunshine and six pack of Session.

Wednesday came and I set out on my own with every intention of getting to Hill Farmstead well before the noon opening.  My only other trip there had been two years before for a special bottle release of Genealogy of Morals and Phenomenology of Spirit.   It was a total shit show with geeks flocking in for hundreds of miles.  It took over two hours to get my bottles of these rarities and then get my growlers filled with IPA’s.  But I figured that had to be the exception, not the rule.  Today I imagined I could breeze in and out in 30 minutes or so. IMAG00136

Thanks to a closed bridge which did not show on my phone until I got there, my arrival was delayed until 11:50.   I was greeted by a full parking lot and a line that stretched out the door.  On entering the building an employee helped orient me to their system which meant I was given a checklist to fill out with how many bottles and growlers I planned to buy.  Once filled out I turned it back in and was assigned an ignominious number “46.” Obviously this was going to take longer than I thought.  But very soon my hoped for departure time of 1 pm became 1:30 and then 2.

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Trying a tasting flight of four different drafts helped pass the time.  The fact that beer geeks are also a pretty convivial bunch meant lots of conversation with people of Vermont, Boston and Connecticut.  Even so, it was just after 2 pm by the time my order was filled and wheeled out to my car.

To their credit the staff was quite apologetic.  I learned that Wednesday’s are usually their busiest day and I suspect that if I had arrived at 3 pm my wait would have been much shorter.  Ah, the best laid plans.

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It can be argued that no beer is worth waiting in line that long.  But the truth is that most geeks have done exactly that at one time or another.  The question is, Is that a practice we should ever repeat?  In the case of my trip to Hill, given that I spent four hours driving just to be there, there was no way I was going home empty handed.  But the question is, how much time and energy is a beer worth?

There is no doubt that these expeditions can be fun and thus have some intrinsic value that is independent of the liquid goal.  But the investment of time, gas and energy does leave me wondering about the cost-benefit analysis.  Just how much is that beer worth?

Without a doubt the fruits of my efforts are world class.  Yet I can also get world class beers from local breweries via a five minute trip to the local distributor or bottle shop.

What do you think?  What is the furthest you have traveled to get a specific beer?  How long have you waited?  Was it worth it?  I’d love to know.

Can I get I drink?

First my apologies for being offline for a month.  Life, work, family and travel kept pushing writing a new post to the back of the que.

When I learned that I was going to be spending 10 days in Salt Lake City in order to attend the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, I inwardly groaned.  Salt Lake?  Really?  How boring. More importantly, would I be able to get a decent beer?

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Turns out I had nothing to worry about.

Within just a few blocks of my hotel there are at least a dozen bars including two brew pubs, Squatters and Red Rocks.  Indeed within just a few outings I found that there were many local breweries making pretty decent stuff.

Of course there is a wrinkle.  While booze can be easily had the states’ Mormon heritage still shows through.  Most noticeably is in draft beer.  All draft beer in the state must be 4% ABV or less.  While this might sound like a terrible idea to everyone except Mr. Session Beer himself, Lew Bryson, it actually leads to a lot of creativity and some pretty tasty beers too.  The restriction harkens back to the old “3.2 beer.” Since 3.2 measured alcohol by weight as opposed to volume it works out to be the same strength.

While I can imagine that it makes a brewer’s job much harder, they actually manage to put forward some solid offerings.  I’ve had a few solid helles and pilsners but beyond that there are other more interesting options.  Naturally the “session” IPA’s and pale ales are ubiquitous but I’ve also had a really good cream ale and porter and saw a “chocolate, chocolate rye.”

Of course higher test beers can be had in cans and bottles and I’ve had some really solid options there too.  Sometimes the ABV isn’t all that much higher.  I’ve had pilsners and lagers that were 5.5% and tried several IPA’s as well.  I even had a good nut brown and a 12% ABV RIS.

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Bobcat Nutbrown at Red Rocks Brew Pub

The other vagary that I’ve encountered has no upside.  High West distillery is just a half an hour away on Park City and makes some great ryes in particular.  I was excited to find a number that I haven’t tried readily available and for a reasonable price.  I found out the catch when the waitress brought me a pour of “Son of Bourye” and I had to ask her if it was as full pour or just a taste.  Turns out that all hard alcohol must be poured out through a device that strictly measures out an ounce.  You also can’t order a double pour although if you have a drink with several alcohols in it then it can have up to 2 1/2 ounces in it. Doesn’t matter how nice you are to the barkeep, those skimpy pours are all the law allows.

So even though there are some real differences I have to say that SLC is a worthy beer destination after all.

The Walk to St. James Gate

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In honor of St Patrick’s Day I am re-posting one of my soggiest beer drinking adventures.  Hope you enjoy it.  Slainte!

Rain in Ireland is nothing new.  In fact, Kevin, my friend and host, during my summer 2011 trip told me that in Ireland you can experience all four seasons in a single day.

From the time of my arrival the daily rain quickly showed that my Columbia (and allegedly water resistant) jacket was not going to suffice.  Fortunately Kevin had a spare one from Patagonia that seemed to be working much better… that is until I decided to walk across Dublin in it in a steady rain.

I had weighed the decision for a couple of days now… should I bother to visit the famous Guinness Storehouse Brewery at St. James Gate while I was in Dublin or not?  It was without a doubt one of the most touristy things one can do…. right up there with the Blarney Stone it was something in my mind that only yokels stooped to do.   Yet I was also working to launch my blog dealing with reflections on beer and beer culture.  It was a only supposed to be a 15-20 minute walk… how could I pass it up?  So I headed out from just south of St. Stephen’s Green on my quest for the fabled “Perfect Pint.”

For those of you who don’t know me, I suck with maps.  There is something wrong with my internal compass.  I very easily get all turned around and head off in the opposite direction that I should be going in.  Now combine this misfortune of fogged up glasses and the inexplicable reality that Dublin seems to have no street signs whatsoever (and when I say none, I really do mean none) and the end result is that what should have taken no more than about 20 minutes took more like an hour.  And did I mention it was raining?

Anyway, the Patagonia had long since succumbed to the Irish weather and as the time was dragging on I began to second guess my decision…. Should I just give up, turn around and find a nice dry pub to warm up in?  But while one can certainly impugn my sense of direction and perhaps also my judgment and maybe even my intelligence, one thing you can never question is my stubbornness.

And so I stuck with it.  Eventually I got turned in more or less the right direction and at long last the brewery was in sight.  I kept walking even when it became apparent that I had chosen the wrong approach to finding the entrance to the 55 acre complex.  So instead of walking down the correct side and turning right to the entrance I walked the extra kilometer or so the wrong way around the perimeter.  Add to this that it was now 4:45 and they stopped letting folks in at 5:00 so the time was also adding to my anxiety.

Of course even with my wrong turns I eventually got there.  Upon entering I found there was a long queue of other wet and tired tourists who were also pushing their luck that afternoon.  While waiting to buy my ticket we were told that because of a private function that night that we had to go straight to the top to the Gravity Bar on the 7th floor and get our pint first and that then on the way back down we could take the self-guided tour.

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Part of the cool 360 degree view from the Gravity Bar

When I finally got to the front of the line I was shocked to find that the ticket for this cost not the 5 Euro I had been told but was in fact a whopping 15 Euro which translates to $21.30 given the exchange rate that day.  Again, I had second thoughts… $21 bucks for a pint?  That made the beer that I was told I had to rush up to get the most expense pint I had ever purchased.  But I had come this far and so was not about to turn back.

As I packed into the elevator with a group of German tourists I began anticipate the beer.  The room was circular and did indeed fulfill their claim that it offered the best views of Dublin.  Anyway, after standing in line for a while I finally held the glass in my hands.  I tried to savor the moment… to really analyze the appearance of the dark liquid still churning up its foamy head.  However the culmination of my relief at finally arriving, my thirst and the power of the moment simply got the better of me and I took a long first sip.

I sincerely wish I could say that that I had some sort of a transcendent moment… that brewing angels sang and that my perseverance was somehow rewarded with a once in a lifetime taste experience.  It was not so.  While the pint was indeed a good one and in fact seemed to have a bit more of a roasty character than the Guinness I had gotten elsewhere, it was not the Nirvana-in-a-glass that I had been hoping for.Image

I contemplated this as I walked back down the seven floors and perused the displays.  Had it all been worth it?  Had I made the right decision?  Had I been foolish not to turn back?  Perhaps.  Had I stayed in the City Center area I would no doubt have had different experiences and they likely would have been interesting, drier and probably a good deal less frustrating.  However, (and I suppose this is where I finally get around to the spiritual part of this post) I choose to believe that everything happens for a reason.  The reasons for my journey to St. James’ Gate are not yet fully clear to me and in fact may never be.  I will say that they lead to some interesting experiences in a local’s only pub in the Liberties neighborhood on the way back, but that as they say, is another story.   But even with that in mind, I am left to ponder the purpose of my journey.

What did God have in mind for me that day?  What did I miss out on?  What did it teach me about myself?  About my capacity for stubbornness?  What did God want me to learn from my perfect, but still less than satisfying, pint atop of Dublin?  I may never fully know but I still choose to believe that it all still served a purpose and in the end it is one thing I can check off my beer bucket list.

What in the world are you doing here?

There is a certain serendipity when you unexpectedly bump into a friend.  You know what I mean- the chance encounter of pulling into the concert only you find you have parked next to someone you haven’t seen in months or looking across the restaurant to spot an old friend from high school.

Yet as cool as that coincidence or providence may be it become so much more amazing when it happens 4300 miles from home.  Not surprisingly it happened over a beer.

Last summer I was fortunate enough to go to Rome.  And while I fully expected to be Beer Week event 2013 (1)seeing some amazing sights, tasting awesome food and sampling all the Italian craft beer I could find I never expected to share some of those experiences with one of my favorite publicans, none other than Fergus Carey.  As you may remember, Fergie is the generous host of our A Priest, Minister and a Rabbi Walk into a Bar events.

While we didn’t randomly bump into one another on the street (it was actually through checking in on Facebook that we discovered that we were both in Rome) what are the odds of being there at the same time?  Needless to say we could not allow this opportunity pass so we arranged to meet for an afternoon beer.

20130709_184837We met at Piazza Navona  and then took the ten minute hike to Open Baladin.  We were later joined by my lovely wife who had been out for a walk around Trastevere.  Over several rounds we talked about our travels and families.

We had such a good time that we decided to meet up again later that night for an al fresco dinner.  This time we made sure everyone got in on the fun, including Fergie’s wonderful wife and all of our children.  Sitting together on a back street we watched the other diners and shoppers as we listened to an ever changing rota of street musicians.

While our conversation seldom turned back to our lives in Philadelphia (we were on Rome 2013_855vacation after all), there was still something reassuring and even grounding to find this tangible connection to home.  And maybe that is what lies at the heart of this kind of serendipitous encounter.  Not simply the chance to catch up with a friend, but the opportunity to rekindle that sense of connection to another time or place.

What chance encounters have you had?  Who have you run into at an unexpected time or place?  How far away have you been when you bumped into someone from home?  Please let us know.

No Room in the Trunk? No Problem!

 

 

 

 

 

When it comes to packing the car I am a master.  To me it is a challenge like a jigsaw puzzle… I love to try to get all the pieces put together in the most efficient way possible. As a result I can squeeze more bags into the small trunk of our Mazda 3 than anyone else I know and still manage to leave room to see out of the rear view mirror.  This skill comes in handy, not just in terms of packing for vacation, it is also useful to visiting breweries.

Two weeks ago I undertook my annual pilgrimage up to see family in Vermont and Rhode Island.  As you may know Vermont is particularly rich in great local beer, most of which cannot be found outside the state.  Many times I have come back with bottles squeezed into every available nook and cranny of the car.  Once I managed to pack in two cases of Heady Topper in addition to everything else.

Although I did not get to many breweries on this trip I still had more than 3 cases of beer to squeeze in amongst our bags.    Below is a list of the beers I brought back:

Berkshire: Czeck Pilsner and Lost Sailor IPA

Foolproof: Backdraft IPA, Raincloud Robust Porter

Grassroots: Arctic Saison (Hill Farmstead and Anchorage), Arctic Soiree (Hill                 Farmstead and Anchorage), Black Nitro (Hill Farmstead and Amager)

Longtrail: Imperial Pumpkin

Switchback: Extra Pale Ale

Wachusset: Larry Imperial IPA

Trinity: IPA

Mystic: Saison, Table Beer, Day of Doom

Woodstock: Double Pig’s Ear Double Down Brown Ale

Graysail: Flying Jenny EPA, Flagship

Newport: Storm IPA

If you’ve ever had any of them, let me know what you thought.  So how much beer have you managed to squeeze in the car?  Solo trips or with just a beer buddy don’t count.   No, I want to know how many bottles and growlers have you packed among all the kid’s luggage coming back from your road trip?  Let us know below.

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We got to get back to the garden (beer garden that is)

Last weekend my wife and I were trying to find a suitable location for the after party that will follow my brother’s wedding reception.  Since many of the guests will be from out of town, or even out of the country, we wanted to find somewhere that really represented our fair city.  We thought about the usual iconic restaurants, bars and hotels but then she was struck by a flash of inspiration.  And so after dinner that night we headed down to the new Independence Beer Garden.

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downloadWhen we arrived at Sixth and Chestnut Streets (directly across from the Liberty Bell) you could see even from a distance that the place was packed.  The main hall was simply too noisy so we walked around the outskirts to try to find some open space to sit and enjoy our beer.  Finding nowhere where there were just two empty seats I spotted a grouping of six Adirondack style chairs occupied by only four people.  I asked if the two empty seats were taken and were told they weren’t.

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For our first round (I had Yards IPA on nitro and she had Ommegang Wit) we spoke only with each other, discussing the merits of the venue.  But as our beers were running dry one of the young women seated in the group complimented my t-shirt which read “Fizzy Yellow Beer if for Wussies”.  With the ice broken we turned our chairs into their group and began to talk.  Turns out  all four were originally from Ukraine.  Two now live in Philly and two were down visiting from Brooklyn.  Soon they were pouring some of their pitcher (Yards Love Stout) into our empty glasses.  We reciprocated by buying the next round.

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Beer brings people together.  I have written before about beer’s capacity as social lubricant and about the potential that the bar has to make friends out of strangers.  This holds true even here in the United States where we tend to prefer reserved tables or sitting with as much space as possible between ourselves and the people on either side of us at the bar.

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Yet in Europe and many other places around the world the social potential of beer reaches its apex in beer gardens and beer halls.  They are of course largely the same as the average American bar.  People still go there to drink, to let off steam, to talk politics and sports and to make friends.  The major difference is in the seating.  Beer gardens and halls tend to feature long tables, often seating a dozen or more.  As such our concept of personal space goes out the window.

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Think about it, a group of three or four people couldn’t possibly hope to keep such a table all to themselves. As the place fills up, people inevitably come and fill in the extra space.  The sense of isolation that some Americans value so highly is simply impossible in such a gregarious setting.  Moreover, the beer garden is not simply a place to dash into for a quick round.  It invite you to sit and stay, often for a long time.  It’s allure is furthered by music and games, be it ping pong, shuffle board, bocce or even giant Jenga.

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Another important difference from the traditional American bar is that the beer garden isPicture 632 usually a family friendly environment.  In my travels to Germany in particular, this was a place for everyone to gather, to eat, talk, play and of course drink.  It is not considered at all incongruous to have children playing just because the men (and some of the women too) are hoisting liter mugs of beer. (FYI, my daughter is only holding that mug for the photo op)

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philly-fergies-beergarden-lg_636_400_85_s_c1Thankfully, this time honored tradition of drinking and community is finally catching on here, particularly in Philadelphia.  Several years ago Frankford Hall helped to get the trend of an outdoor beer garden going.  But this summer, spurred by a newly exploited loop hole in the law, a number of “pop up” beer gardens have appeared all over the city.  Some are in very public places like the Parkway in front of the Art Museum.  Others, like Fergie’s “Beach,” (above) are in open lots next to established bars.  But I am not here to opine on the legalities but I hope they are here to stay.  Because I enjoyed meeting my new friends from Ukraine and it might never have happened without the blessing of the Beer Garden.