“These Are Not Your Uncle’s Balls”

Over the course of a day I have many opportunities to be wrong. There are plenty of people from federal and state regulators to the occasional staff colleague hoping that I’ll miss something or fail to catch an esoteric issue as they sharpen their career-advancing daggers.  I guess that’s a reasonably good description of stress. Halloween was a particularly fine example (and not because I’d be spending much of the early evening careening about the neighborhood in the company of hideous ghouls and pint-sized Taylor Swifts).  It was my final day of preparation for a deposition (as a witness – the wrong side of the questioning) in a case involving about a quarter billion dollars.  So you could say it was a bit more stressful a day than most.  That said, we were having a few friends over for drinks, pumpkin ales & apps after trick or treating with our kids later on so I took a few minutes to type up a sign to go with the meatballs I concocted for the evening.  The description started with “these are not your uncle’s balls.” It devolved from there, listing the odd culinary Fusion Confusion Collision Cuisine elements it contained from Thailand, Korea, Vietnam, and Sweden.  For no good or apparent reason I sent the description to my enabler and wingman in all things culinary, craft beer, spirits, and lunacy, G-Lo of It’s Just The Booze Dancing and he responded with the following annoying line: “that’s a blog post, just say’in.”  I didn’t have time to list all the reasons why it was certainly was NOT a blog post, went back to preparing for the deposition, and ignored him for the rest of the day (while occasionally mentally circling back to why it wasn’t a blog post).     ………..Until it was.

I did my part as the trick or treating craft beer evangelist by dragging around a rolling cooler full of Wachusett Pumpkin and Tuckahoe Holly Beach Pumpkin Ales, handing them out to worthy and thirsty Halloween revelers (after they presented legal proof of age of course – can never be too sure when you might be handing an adult beverage to a freakishly large 14 year old in a skin tight dalmatian suit).  The meatballs went over well and the after party was success but there were no inspiring craft beers and definitely nothing to inspire a craft beer blog post.

Fast forward to that Saturday.  My oldest daughter’s birthday and youth soccer double header.  As I was getting ready to get out of the car at the second soccer field one of these parked next to me:

Your Uncle's Sedan Deville (still a big seller in Canada)

Your Uncle’s Sedan Deville (still a big seller in Canada)

A 1978 Caddy Sedan Deville.  Required wheels for uncles in the Northeast, tricked out with a split front bench seat, color-keyed hub caps and, for the lucky few, a Dolby B 8-Track cassette player for that collection of Lawrence Welk tapes.  Your uncle had one too and if you never saw it, it was because he kept it in the garage of his other family’s house on Long Island.  You never saw them either, but they were there.  Little did I know that a few hours later I’d pour a beer that would relate – in an extremely byzantine way – to the Sedan Deville proving G-Lo correct.  There was a craft beer blog post in them thar balls after all.

Fast forward even further to that much celebrated annual slaughter of homely birds in honor of our cultural slaughter and domination of the indigenous Native Americans and where do I find myself but in the company of uncles.  Lots of them.  Veritable late seventies Caddy showroom lining the street out front.  But before I digress further, there has to be something done about 60+ year old couples shopping together at supermarkets.  It must be outlawed.  When was the last time you didn’t see couples of that age arguing in the soup aisle?  The husband grumbling quietly under his breath while his wife proudly proclaims something that’s almost certainly wrong.  Meanwhile, they left the cart at an angle across the aisle apparently forgetting that they hadn’t rented out the whole place for a private shopping/sniping experience.  From now on, one at a time.  Couples with an aggregate age at or over 120 must not shop together.  Really quite simple.  Better for all of us.

Anyway, while some look forward to turkey, stuffing, and Cowboys football in the lead up to Thanksgiving, I look forward to the arrival of winter and holiday seasonal craft beers.  Always have.  Nothing says holiday season like the first sight of Anchor Christmas Ale.  That’s always been my favorite winter/holiday seasonal and this year’s version is especially good.  That night I poured my first of the season.  The next day I poured something entirely different.  Anchor California Lager.

Not hipster approved

Under-appreciated Craftbeersmanship

First of all, I generally avoid lagers.  Just not enough going on.  They always lack depth and complexity.  The Reader’s Digest of beer styles.  This one was different.  I checked the label a few times as if to expecting it to reveal itself to be something more than a pedestrian lager.  But it was more – though firmly a lager.  It was a a classic example of what true craft brewing is irrespective of style.  Anchor has always held a very special place in my craft beer heart.  Anchor Steam was the beer that started me on the path to becoming a craft beer geek in the first place.  Anchor Liberty Ale is another favorite.  A solid go to pale that’s versatile,  never gets old and never disappoints.  Perhaps the cleanest, driest finish of any beer I’ve ever had.  It even brings out the best in a sun ray or two on a cold East Coast winter day…
IMG_2977

Suddenly I was reminded of the deposition I attended up in Manhattan the week before.  Eight hours of testimony on asset-backed securities and swap terminations is enough to drive the purest Mormon to drink.  Fortunately I’m not Mormon (and never have been despite my Bob Dylan-esque temporary departure from the balls of my People – matzo, that is) and I’m far from pure – though generally pretty good.  So I’m on my way back to Penn Station when I “just happen” upon Rattle N Hum in Midtown.  I’ll review the bar another time but, suffice it to say, it has a very Philadelphia craft beer bar scene vibe.  That’s a good thing.  I figured I could squeeze a pint of craft beer research in  before I had to hit the train so I grabbed a stool.  Few things surprise me in a craft beer bar but I was taken aback at the tap list scrawled on the chalk board.  40 Sierra Nevada brews.  These were not your uncle’s Sierra Nevada Pales (though it was on the lines).  Everything from Torpedo to one-off barrel aged stouts.  Familiar to anything but.  Most of your uncles only know SN Pale (especially the ones who confuse volume with insightful comment) but the cool one has had most, if not all, of the brews on the tap takeover list that day.  By that standard I guess I’m kind of cool because the only one I hadn’t had was the Barrel Aged Maple Stout with Coffee (until there was one in front of me on the bar).

As watched the Soprano’s neighborhoods of North Jersey fade in the distance during the train ride home I couldn’t help but think of how underrappreciated Anchor and Sierra Nevada seem to be these days.  Don’t get me wrong, I love plenty of cutting edge, aggressive craft brews.  Ballast Point’s Indra Kunindra and New Belgium’s Lips of Faith Coconut Curry Hefeweizen being prime examples.  But with Dogfish Head, Brew Dogs, Surly, and so many others vying for shelf space and attention, the stable longboard surfers – the ones who first taught us that you could ride waves in the first place – are often left too far out of mind.  There’s something to be said for stability, authenticity, and tradition.  Kind of like a ride in the center front seat of your uncle’s ’78 Caddy.

Then I arrived home and after a quick dinner and check of the kid’s homework I went to the chilled craft beer research locker and gazed upon a shelf full of Sierra Nevada Celebration Ales.  Coincidence? Nope.

Happy Hoppy Holidays!

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Austin SXSW – Music, Interactive, Craft Beer (well it should be)

Wasn’t long ago that Austin was known mostly for these guys:

One of nature's most freakishly astounding shows

Congress Ave Bats

I’ve stood on that bridge at dusk under the million or so bats as they flutter, dive, and swirl about before heading off into the night sky.  Sinewy tendrils of winged death.  It’s a wonder a few dozen onlookers don’t stroke out at the sight of them every sunset.  Fortunately for a few bat fans in the know, there’s a world class craft beer bar just a few blocks from that bridge.  An easy walk for even those still jittery  from the hellishly Hitchcockian yet spectacular display.

I’m a strong believer in the separation of Church and State.  I’m also a strong believer in really illogical segues and that was a particularly fine example.  Anyway, I believe that separation should extend beyond religion and politics to include work and play.  I practice what I preach by carrying an iPhone and a BlackBerry – one for work, one for play.  I’ll leave it to you to figure out which one’s for which.  On rare occasions though, work and play intersect.  I’m fortunate to speak at an annual national conference in Austin where Higher Education, Health Care, and other industry executives come to hear me discuss topics from the BlackBerry side of the divide.  There, I gave it away.

So the first time I visited about the only things I knew about Austin were those bats and the Bell Tower on the campus of the University of Texas.  34 years after the Boomtown Rats song I still don’t like Mondays.  Unless its a Monday night in Austin at the Ginger Man.

Liquid Gold & Hammered Copper

Every Handle Offers a Worthy Brew

I’d heard of this bar only in passing and knew there were a few of them in Texas.  I’d targeted it for a visit the Saturday I arrived for the conference in 2009.  The first session wan’t until the following morning so I had the afternoon for some Texas craft beer research.  After a nearly mile long walk in 102 degree heat in search of a Radio Shack for a new laptop charger to replace the one comfortably resting in NJ (being an industry expert doesn’t mean I’m not also a knucklehead – the two aren’t mutually exclusive), I finally hit the Ginger Man.  I might have happily accepted a Bud Light Lime after the hike (not really) but once I saw the hammered copper wall with 50-something taps I knew I wouldn’t have to settle for anything.  Just about every handle was devoted to craft beer.  Quite a few local offerings as well.  I settled in with a Live Oak Hefewiezen and my love affair with Texas craft beer began.  I’ve been back to the Ginger Man a few times since then and can honestly say it’s one of my top 5 favorite craft beer bars anywhere.  My beers are constantly getting hit on there.  Seems that almost everyone that walks in is tied to craft beer in some way.  It’s a hangout for local brewers and craft beer fans from far and near.  The bartenders are all knowledgable, friendly, and attentive.

So I developed a real respect for Texas craft beer during my first visit to the Ginger Man in ’09 but it wasn’t until the next year that I recognized just how vibrant the Austin craft beer culture was.  Understandable to a degree because so few Austin breweries distribute outside of the local region (none of them make it out to Jersey – yet another knock).  These guys are turning out some legitimate world class brews:

  • (512) Brewing – their Pecan Porter is outstanding
  • Live Oak – nobody brews a better Hefewiezen (seriously)
  • Jester King
  • Austin Beerworks
  • South Austin Brewing
  • Independence Brewing
  • Circle Brewing

The Ginger Man was very close to our conference hotel up until 2011 when it moved to the new conference center on the UT campus.  Nice place.  Just down the street from the Bell Tower but not from my top 5 research spot.  Thanks to the play phone and the magic of Google Maps, I located a potential target just 4 or 5 blocks away.  Mind you, those 4-5 blocks would be uphill and its still 102 degrees and humid so it better be worth the trip.  Duck & Dog Pub.  First thought: stupid name.  Probably not worth the trip.  Nothing else nearby and I don’t have car so I’m pretty much stuck with it.  About a block away I spotted the sign and approached what appeared to be a not-too-well maintained large dark shack behind it.  Second thought: this place is a dump.  Not going in.  After all, I’m Jewish and I’m in Texas.  Not a good combination to begin with.  Then I went in.

Surprised to see this one pop up here

Alaskan IPA at Duck & Dog Pub (complete with Aurora Borealis)

Next thought: what is a British pub doing in the middle of Texas and why are there Alaskan Brewing tap handles over there?  That last question was pretty easy – they were attached to kegs of Alaskan IPA and Alaskan Summer Ale.  The only other place I’d ever seen Alaskan brews on tap was at a bar in SeaTac Airport.  That made sense.  Alaskans in Austin? Not so much.  But the beers were excellent.  The atmosphere ridiculously casual and the fried pickles spectacularly addictive (though not nearly as good as the Wicked Pickles at Oak Creek Brewery in Sedona, AZ).  You’d never confuse this place with the Ginger Man.  Not nearly as many taps but still plenty of good local and not so local offerings.  Final thought: I was wrong.

Austin may still be known for its bats, SXSW, Austin City Limits, 6th Street (and that W Daughter’s exploits), but it’s solidly on the craft beer radar and the ping is growing louder and hoppier.  Oh, and its still got this:

All things considered its really not all that wierd

The Shirt Says it All

Cheers!

What did I miss?  Who did I offend?  Let me know in the comments……

Stop Bashing The Yard House – It’s Your Date’s Best Gateway Beer Bar

Classic Yard House Logo

Being a craft beer evangelist is fraught with many dangers.  Wondering if I’ll actually have to dig a pair of Sanz-A-Belt slacks out of the Do Not Go There Drawer is only one of them.  Another is the risk of missing a critical plot twist in Homeland while responding to a friend in need – a friend in a far away, unfamiliar bar.  A friend in need of emergency advice before the bartender loses his or her patience.  I get those texts so often that some of my buddies don’t even bother to type words.  They simply send the name of the bar or send a picture of the tap list (often a daunting challenge to decipher after they’ve already had a couple of starter brews).

A couple weeks ago a good friend was on his way to Kansas City for business and knew he’d have a few hours of free time one evening so he asked me to suggest a good bar.  Not knowing where he’d be staying I set out to look into the local KC craft beer scene by checking out some reviews on RateBeer.  Before long I began reading multiple reviews of the Yard House and, being somewhat familiar with the bar, I was surprised to see so many negative comments.  First things first, I sent my buddy there (though he never made it), then I went back to the reviews.  Some clear patterns emerged.  The more I read, the more I understood the reasons for the complaints but the more I disagreed with them – for the most part.

The Yard House is a moderately large chain.  By my count there are 44 currently open and 8 more on the way.  I’ve been to two of them: Scottsdale, AZ and Pasadena, CA.  As best as I can recall I’ve visited each location 4 or 5 times and I’d happily return for another 4 or 5 sessions.  So why is it that my opinion of the Yard House differs so significantly from that of so many other craft beer fans?   Simple.  They’re all wrong.  That’s usually the case – well, maybe not always (I did say “usually”).

Here’s the thing: The Yard House isn’t a craft beer bar and it doesn’t hold itself out as one.  Unfortunately, many of the people who give it poor reviews do it from the wrong perspective.  They hold it to the same standards as a they would the Toronado Pub in San Francisco, Blind Tiger Ale House in NYC or Map Room in Chicago.  The comparison is unfair.  No Yard House location with its 120+ gleaming taps can match any of those iconic craft beer bars.  Again, it doesn’t try to – doesn’t need to.

Nice Job With Those Pours

Nice Job With Those Pours

The Yard House is more than just beer – and there’s a lot of that.  All of the locations have a similar, though not identical,  industrial design, large casually upscale pub-influenced menu and classic ’70s & ’80s rock.  Who can get enough of REO Speedwagon, Flock of Seagulls & Dexy’s Midnight Runners?  Not me – and I’ve tried.

The star of each space remains the beer.  Most locations have well over 100 taps, usually arranged around a large center island surrounded by a stainless steel bar.  Sleek, clean, industrial, purposeful.  So with over 100 taps what is everybody complaining about? (Well, not everyone complained.   I noticed a Canuck who still hasn’t figured out that Canada is Milwaukee’s largest suburb posted some complimentary remarks).

The truth is that craft beer flows from only a minority of those 100 taps.  It bears repeating: this isn’t a craft beer bar.  When I want to visit a world class craft beer bar in Scottsdale I hit Papago Brewing but when I want to catch a game, listen to some Men Without Hats and have a Bear Republic Racer 5 or Deschutes Black Butte Porter, I’m heading to the Yard House.  Granted, many of the taps are domestic and import Big Beer swill (Bud, Miller, Coors, Molson, Corona, Stella, etc) or widely available “Big Craft” (Sam Adams, Shiner), but you’ll find a handful of solid craft choices as well.  One criticism I do have is that local craft brewers aren’t well represented.  Last time I visited the Scottsdale location they only had one Four Peaks brew and no other Arizona breweries and there were no Craftsman handles in Pasadena.

Typical YardHouse Tap Island

Typical YardHouse Tap Island

That said, craft beer fans can multitask here.  While enjoying a New Belgium Ranger IPA they can introduce their buddy or, better yet, their second date to a New Belgium Fat Tire (OK, maybe handing her something with “fat” on the label would present additional challenges regarding plans/hopes for later that evening but you get the picture).  We often talk about gateway beers such as Blue Moon.  Perhaps the Yard House is a gateway beer bar.  Yes, the tap list skews a bit heavily towards quantity over quality but there are some gems in there.  Might not be diamonds like a Founders KBS but there will be a few gleaming rubies and with such a wide spectrum there are plenty of opportunities to help open minds and educate palates.

And for the hard core craft beer geek (like me), when the game’s over at the Yard House Scottsdale there just might be an Alaskan Pilot Series Double Black IPA with your name on it in the cooler at Papago down the road.

Cheers!

Firewaters – A Sure Bet in Atlantic City

beer_bar

Wasn’t long ago that Atlantic City’s slot machines had honest to goodness handles that you could pull in hopes of a payout of a cascading stream of real coins.  The apparent constant sound of metallic waterfalls made you think everyone was a winner on every pull of the handle.  Of course we knew better.  We knew every pull was a hit or miss proposition – usually miss.  

Atlantic City isn’t what it used to be.  The casinos have grown, improved and modernized.  The slot machines have gone digital.  Most of them don’t even accept real coins anymore and the cacaphony of cascading coins throughout the casino floor is just a digital sound file that could very well be pumping through the gaming floor’s sound system from one of the resort VP’s daughter’s iPods.  Real coins aren’t the only things missing from the the slot machines these days.  The slot handles are gone too.

Thankfully, the slot handles have been replaced by tap handles at Firewaters in the Tropicana.  More thankfully, the payout odds with each pull of those handles is far better than the odds upstairs on the casino floor, in fact, the odds are perfect.  Every pull of a tap handle at Firewaters guarantees a tasty payout.

Fifty craft and import brews on tap (OK, there are a few industrial swill spigots) and 101 bottled varieties. More than a handful of the available brews when I visited were impressive.  A large selection is nice but a quality selection is far more important.  I had a Stone Oaked Arrogant Bastard and a Founders Breakfast Stout and if I was staying there that night I might have sampled a few more from the wall of taps which boasted Lagunitas, Great Divide, Left Hand, Smuttynose and plenty of others.

As an added bonus, the bartenders know their hops.  Call me crazy, but I think you should know what you’re pouring, especially if you’re filling the glasses with some world class beers.  You wouldn’t select a bottle of wine from a sommllier that raves about Sutter Home so you should expect the bartenders at a place with a respectable beer selection to respect the selection themselves.  Anyway, our bartender, Sherri, knew her stuff and told us that management requires the staff to take tests on beer styles and brewers. Good for them.  Good for us.  Good for business.

So there are now 2 legitimate beercentric bars in Las Vegas’s poor step-sister city:  the Tun Tavern Brewpub and Firewaters.  Here’s hoping that the list grows!  While hoping for that I’ll be sampling the bottled  selections at Firewaters (to be certain there really are 101).

~Cheers!

The Crafting of a Craft Beer Geek

Oak Creek Brewpub in Sedona, AZ

Oak Creek Brewpub in Sedona, AZ

Ask me almost anything about beer and there’s a pretty good chance I’ll know the answer.  “What’s the difference between dry hopping and continuous hopping?”  I know that. “Does chocolate malt really contain chocolate?”  I know that too, and – no, it doesn’t.  “What’s Fritz Maytag’s claim to brewing fame?”  Yeah, I know that and it doesn’t have anything to do with inventing a combination Maytag dishwasher/brew kettle.   “Who brews Pliny the Elder Ale and what styles of beer pair well with Thai food or Texas BBQ?  Yes, I can tackle those as well.  The list goes on and has gone on at beer tastings and other events for a while now.  I’ve been a proud bearer of the beer geek tag for a good 8 years.  I’ve hosted countless beer tastings, reviewed hundreds of beers, sampled hundreds more, brewed my own beer, given purchasing advice to a handful of owners, buyers and beer managers at local liquor stores and designed flights for some local craft beer bars but one question has evaded even a poor answer despite many attempts:  “when did you become a beer geek (or beer nut as the question is usually posed)?”  For far too long, the best and most honest answer I could come up with has been, “I don’t really know.”  Absurd, how could I not even know enough to take a weak stab at such a basic and obvious question?  Well, never one to be comfortable with not knowing the answer (especially to something so seemingly simple), I sat down with a contemplative pint or two of Great Divide Yeti Oak Aged Imperial Stout and determined to come up with something better than “I don’t really know.”

When it came to beer in the first place I was late to the tap handle, not having my first one until midway through my second semester of sophomore year at Syracuse University.  A self-imposed goodie two shoes I can honestly say that I never had a drink at a high school party and I didn’t even thought about sneaking a little something from my parents bar.  Throughout Freshman Year I never uncapped one of the Haffenreffer’s my future roommate, John Chawner, and his future wife, Cathy, were so quizzically partial to.  When I did start to accompany my college buddies to the bars adjacent to campus I tended to stay away from beer completely – just hated the taste of it and couldn’t understand why anyone would drink it.  Embarrassingly, I would usually be caught with a vodka Collins in those days but that’s another story.

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