Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Writing This Ship: Part 6 - Beer Lover's Mid-Atlantic; update and more to come

It's now been over two years since I finalized the first draft of my book - Beer Lover's Mid-Atlantic - for submission to the editors at the publishing house. And fifteen months since it was released. Very hard to believe how long it's been. In the intervening months, I've had 56 appearances at book signing events in bookstores, bike shops, Beer Weeks, markets, festivals, breweries, and bars from Pittsburgh to Baltimore to Philly and small towns in between.

And while I'm certainly not pushing the book as hard as I had in the first year of its release, I'm looking at a few events in the next couple of months around the Philly/South Jersey area.

Next week, first up is a return visit to Open Book Bookstore in Elkins Park, Pa. This was the site of a very successful "after-hours" tasting, talking, and signing where a few dozen or so beer fans came out for the book and a beer tasting.

On Thursday, September 1, join me and the staff at Open Book. I'll bring some bottles/growlers of beer; you feel free to do the same.

Oh, and as a bit of BTW, one of my unabashed points of pride in the book project was the due diligence that I put into vetting the establishments to be included in the book. It was never set out to be an all-encompassing directory of every beer and brewing establishment. Rather, the more significant and interesting ones in PA, NJ, MD, and DE. The original list of roughly 500 places was whittled down to 379 in-person visits and just shy of 320 were ultimately included in the book.

I bring this up because book's of a nature like mine (i.e. guidebook-ish) can tend to be viewed as outdated after a period of time. But, after nearly two years since finalizing the manuscript (and in the spirit of full disclosure), the following is a list of closed establishments that were included in the book.

  - Twin Lakes (chapter 1; Northern Delaware) - Open. Maybe? Doing (have done?) decent stuff. Then some drama on the Dupont Farm Property leaves Twin Lakes closed and without a home. Reportedly are back up and running in Newport, Del. I need to follow-up on this.

  - Always Ron's (chapter 4; Other Maryland) - Very popular place doing great stuff as a proponent of "better beer" and they were also a "Raven's Nest". But, after ten years, ultimately sounds like it came down to the owners being ready to just go off and do something different.

  - Baying Hound (chapter 4; Other Maryland) - Even though I didn't have a 100% warm-and-fuzzy about them, their trajectory seemed strong enough and in the right direction that I was a bit surprised by the closure announcement. Sounded like a "time-to-get-out-of-it" decision sort of like Boaks in northern New Jersey - on the other hand, one that I did have a gut feeling would eventually run out of steam.

  - Gamble Mill (chapter 8; Central Pennsylvania) - They've been looking to sell as a turn key brewing establishment, but that time might be running short. Sounds like the locals were fans and disappointed to see them go. Such a beautiful historic property so I'm surprised a deal hasn't been done yet. But that's me on the outside looking in.

  - Barren Hill (chapter 9; Philadelphia suburbs) - Unfortunately, the collateral damage of a divorce. Apparently has been sold and a new brewing establishment is set to take over the property in 2017.

  - 34 East (chapter 9; Philadelphia suburbs) - This was just a short blurb included in the "Ambler Pub Crawl". Didn't have any real attachment to the place, but if any of the places on the list for Ambler could have been dropped without regret, it would have been this one.

  - Nodding Head (chapter 10; Philadelphia) - I included them if for no other reason than the role they, and owner Curt Decker, have played over more than 15 years even though I knew they were closing/relocating. Question is: are they still reopening? Thanks to Philly Brewing, you can still find select Nodding Head brews around town.

Finally, I'm very happy to report the following that are included in my book that since experienced setbacks and challenges have recovered.

  - Judge's Bench (chapter 4; Other Maryland) - Nothing catastrophic happened at this excellent bar in Ellicott City compared to the rest of the town during the epic flood, but they had their own issues and cleanup to deal with before reopening more than three weeks later (update: that'd be today, Aug. 24)

  - Quarry House Tavern (chapter 4; Other Maryland) - The wonderful subterranean dive bar was a victim of flooding from a fire in the upstairs Indian restaurant in March 2015. They've been operating a temporary "pop-up" type of QHT across the street since then and have had great support from their industry brethren and consumers alike. I need a local confirmation of their reopening status in the original location.

  - Blue Canoe (chapter 7; Western PA) - Another devastating fire in an adjoining property, this one also in March 2015. Took a while to re-open a year later in March 2016, but along the way, experienced the tremendous support from their fellow brewers in the NW PA brewing scene.

In a future posting, I'll look at some forward-looking statements that were made about brewery expansions, openings, etc and see how they panned out. We'll see which ones I concluded were legitimate enough to include and which ones I more/less got snookered into including.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Writing This Ship: Part 5 - Burgers, Beers, and Yards at Shake Shack

(Shake Shack in University City, Philadelphia from Drexel University across Chestnut Street.)

This Shake Shack model seems to be working, you think? Last week the company opened its 100th location (in Boston) and the same night in Philadelphia they worked with Doug Mashington from Yards Brewing Company to put on a beer dinner featuring some of both company's finest.

(Four courses of Yards beer and Shake Shack sandwiches.)

As a testament to both Yards' and Shake Shack's popularity and drawing power, around 60 pre-ticketed reservations had been made at the restaurant's University City location. Given the number of beer events that dot the calendar and landscape these days, that's quite an impressive showing without a doubt for a sticky Tuesday night in August?

First up was the High Heat Dog with cherry peppers, cheese sauce, and crinkle fries. The Yards IPA, a beer that's been inexcusably off my radar for some time, did a mighty fine job cutting through the cheese sauce.

The second course featured Yards' ESA, darker and more malty than I ever recall. Yet, in this way, was perfect aside the Bacon CheddarShack - an Angus Beer burger topped not just with Wisconsin aged Cheddar, but also smoked Niman Ranch bacon. This was my comfort food course. The fourth course was a beer float made with Yards Love Stout. It was fine, but maybe that was because I was still riding the high of the third course.

The third course pairing of the relatively new Chick'n Shack (with an herbed buttermilk mayo and generous layer of pickles) stole the night as it was paired perfectly with the Philadelphia Pale Ale. Mashington said something to the effect of "...what more do I need to say about Philly Pale?" On paper, the description read " more drinkable than bitter, more aromatic than aggressive". I couldn't agree more and only left me wondering which was superior - the tender chicken sandwich or "the city's" 4.6% ABV pale ale.

Oh, and for my Philadelphia locals, you might already be aware that the 101st location has landed inside the new addition to the King of Prussia Mall.

(Hot dog and IPA)

(Burger and ESA)

(Chicken and Philly Pale)

(Chicken and Philly Pale)

(Love Stout beer float)

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Writing This Ship: Part 4 - The Grey Lodge turns 20

(New tile work at Grey Lodge Pub)

Six beer events and one concert in barely two weeks is sure a lot for an aging guy. An aging beer guy like me, though, knows no quit but getting caught up around here continues to be quite a challenge. There's still a lot of beer-y goodness out there, despite many cries of growing mediocrity. My job is to point you in the direction of quality new stuff happening as well as those that continue to do it well through the years.

(Panel discussion with, from left - Nancy Rigberg; Gene Muller; William Reed; Brian O'Reilly; Lew Bryson; and Scoats)

Grey Lodge Pub in Philadelphia falls into the latter grouping. Last Saturday, August 13, owner Mike "Scoats" Scotese and his team celebrated the legendary bar's 20th anniversary. The party began in the afternoon with a panel of folks that were part of the beer scene twenty years ago. In the video below, from left to right, you'll see Nancy Rigberg (Home Sweet Home Brew store), Gene Muller (founder of Flying Fish), William Reed (co-owner of Standard Tap and Johnny Brenda's restaurants, as well as President of Philly Beer Week), Brian O'Reilly (Brewmaster of Sly Fox Brewing Company), and Lew Bryson (renowned beer and whiskey writer). The panel discussion lasted for approximately 45 minutes and covered both the serious and the silly. The ten minutes I included below capture Scoats' introduction of each panelist.

(New tile work at Grey Lodge Pub featuring annual special events)

(New tile work at Grey Lodge Pub featuring annual special events)

For the oft-decorated bar ("Best bar" this, "Best bar" that) that has built a reputation of having some of the most uniquely themed events through the years (many coinciding with the calendar - 1/20 Day; Groundhog Day; 4/20 Day; Xmas in July; Beer/Deer Season; etc.), this 20th anniversary celebration was rather tame by comparison. A fun, but thoughtful, look back over the last 20 years by the panel. A gathering of familiar faces telling stories of firkinteenths and groundhog days past. A special (but special-as-always) draft beer list. Live music. And an extended kitchen out front on Frankford Avenue. No Hawaiian shirts, feats of strength bar games, or other hilarity that typically ensues. But, maybe just maybe that's another part of the secret to the success of the Grey Lodge - no need for a huge, over-the-top, attention-grabbing celebration event. They've already got the regional (and neighborhood) beer loving public's attention at the quintessential neighborhood Philly bar. Congratulations again to the whole Grey Lodge team and thanks for all the beers.

p.s. This could be the most useless post script to share with you. Though, if you should ever by chance again see the kitchen serving up a special deer sausage sandwich with mushrooms and onions (and presuming you're not giving the vegan lifestyle a try), do not turn it down. It was one of the menu items being cooked up by the chef on the front sidewalk and I took one along for the ride down the Boulevard. One of the most excellent things I've had to eat; a touch of irony that this came the day prior to the S.E.E.D. Vegan Food and Beer Festival that I shared with you yesterday.

(Brewing buds, Jon Defibaugh-Evil Genius and Ben Potts-Tired Hands)

(Slideshow memories. Casey Hughes, formerly of Flying Fish, now with Coppertail in Tampa, Fla.)

(Yours truly with Gene Muller, Flying Fish founder)

(Live music into the evening)

(Crowd swelling into the dinnertime hour at Grey Lodge's 20th Anniversary Party)

(No matter the attribution controversy, still a very nice sentiment)

Friday, August 19, 2016

Writing This Ship: Part 3 - Philly S.E.E.D. Festival, August 14, 2016 - Vegans can come to the party too

Attend a beer festival or beer pairing dinner lately? If so, you're no doubt familiar with the culinary tendency to pair beer (deservedly so, I might add) with all types of animal-related food items. If you, like me, resemble nothing of a 100% dedicated vegan lifestyle, then you have had the pleasures of beer paired with everything from beef to pork to fish and wild game to cheese, eggs, and on and on.

The point of this posting, however, is not to get into the political fray around animal-friendly practices. Rather to open our eyes a bit wider on the merits of pairing beer with non-animal based food and the potential for the satisfying experience that results.

Enter the Philly S.E.E.D. festival (Sustainable Everyday Edibles & Drinkables) that I was invited to on August 14 at the Sugarhouse Casino along Philadelphia's Delaware River waterfront. The invitation immediately piqued my curiosity because I couldn't recall hearing of such a thing in the Philly region in the past. Co-organizer Ryan Mullins-Hudak confirmed that there are "...some vegan festivals on the west coast...and one in NYC, but certainly nothing like it in the area". Not just as a curious food seeker, but also as a runner, I'm always open to new ideas for fueling my body with foods of any kind that yield optimal results. Particularly of interest to me are the ones that have positive impact on the environment, the animal kingdom, and, well, simply offer a different option than the tried and true.

As it turned out, on an oppressively hot and humid dog day of August, inside a casino with super-charged air conditioning at a beer festival was the perfect place to be. With the tasting tables and live music setup in the casino's event space far away from the gaming floor and with a sweeping view of the Delaware River and the Ben Franklin Bridge, one would be hard-pressed to remember that the festival was taking place inside a casino.

The organizers had an impressive lineup of beverage options from breweries (Allagash, Broken Goblet, Conshohocken, Evil Genius, Firestone Walker, Forgotten Boardwalk, Great Lakes, Neshaminy Creek, Oskar Blues, Peak Organic, Samuel Adams, St. Benjamin, Saranac, 2nd Story, Sly Fox, Stone, and Weyerbacher), wines from Breakthru Beverage, cideries like 1911 Hard Cider, kombucha brewers like Baba's Brew, and coffee roasters. Fortunately, our winnings at the casino downstairs were enough to cover our $50 of coffee-related purchases from the Bowie, Md.-based Brewing Good Coffee Company. Great backstory, coffee, and charitable business growth plan. So much so that we passed the story along to our niece in Seattle, where they send their coffee to exactly one location.

The beer, for many who have asked, is already technically vegan is it not? Well, at many breweries, yes, but not technically in certain cases. While not as prevalent a practice as it used to be, beers that are fined - or filtered - using Isinglass (aka fish guts), while not leaving animal matter behind to speak of, are not considered vegan by the most strict of those that practice. And there are beers considered maybe more experimental in nature, such as those adding roasted goat brains or rocky mountain oysters, that no doubt fall outside the vegan classification, but those are certainly more so the extreme exception rather than the rule.

So in that way, the S.E.E.D. festival to me was more about the creative food items being served (and finding beers to pair them with) rather than learning about a "vegan beer". This concept seemed to work well and the event appeared (judging from comments both overheard and directed to me) to be attended by a rather balanced amount of both strict vegans and non-vegans. It would seem to work better next year, however, to guide the attendees into suggested pairings where the food and beverage tables are positioned next to each other similar to the proven Brewer's Plate approach. In the first year of this festival, while laid out comfortably in the event space in addition to an outdoor patio overlooking the river, it was up to the attendees to hopscotch between beverage and food vendors to find the best pairings. I'm looking forward to even more pairing selections as they promise to learn from mistakes this year and grow larger and better next year.

I was able to find a handful of pairings that were satisfyingly flavorful and, served at a party, would not leave you hungry. Suzy Woods from Allagash was pouring the new year-round cage-and-cork bottled Sixteen Counties (the name refers to the brewery's ingredient sourcing practices from farms around the sixteen counties of Maine) and the herbaceous and hop-forward nature of the beer paired nicely with cups of curry from Shankara Vegan Restaurant. The Mushroom Crostini with Rosemary Lemon Cashew Cream also did well with the Allagash beer.

Over by the St. Benjamin table, the brewery's kitchen was serving up chips and salsa that complemented the easy-drinking Bayside Saison. They also brought a personal favorite, the Foul Weather Jack English Mild, whose light roasty malt notes went beautifully with Soy Cafe's potato-based mac 'n' cheese.

Desserts were not to be left out of the vegan options either. In this case, I was able to track down a chocolate and salted pistachio cookie from Love Chunk which went quite nicely with Broken Goblet's Yin Yang Oatmeal Stout. This was inexcusably my first taste of Broken Goblet's beers, which somehow have escaped me (and a visit to the Bristol location) since they opened nearly two years ago.

Going out a winner in more ways than one, Patty and I won $52 on the slot machines after the festival, had a credit for free food (we chose Taconelli's storied pizza, which I was surprised to learn had a spot inside the casino), and parked for free. What a day!

(Enter the casino and up to private event space to Philly's first vegan food and beer festival)

(A room spacious enough to hold a crowd of a few hundred)

(Broken Goblet, Conshohocken, Firestone Walker, and Evil Genius sharing their goods)

(Allagash and 1911 Hard Cider)

(Ivy Hunter traded in her Victory employee shirt for the day to help David Bronstein at Forgotten Boardwalk's table)

(Jackie Cusack representing St. Benjamin)

(Sly Fox - the first brewery seen through the event's entryway)

(S.E.E.D. - Sustainable Everyday Edibles & Drinkables)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Weekly Beer Calendar Update: August 18 - August 24

Here comes the weekly calendar of beer events again. You ready?

As you review beer events, don't forget They host an impressive listing of beer event draft lists to help better inform your beer event planning.

Click through here for a look at the full monthly calendar of beer events around the Philadelphia region.

Croydon, Pa.
Fri. 8/19; 7 p.m.-10 p.m. — Run To The Pils / Scream For Me Dortmunder Release Party featuring Stainless Maiden at Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company [This 5.2% ABV straw yellow pale lager is crisp, dry, and dry hopped with Mandarina Bavaria hops giving it a ton of lemon zest and citrus aroma that’s absolutely crushable. The second beer is Scream for Me Dortmunder, a 5.4% pale lager brewed in the Export style.  $PAYG]
Sat. 8/20; 2 p.m.-6 p.m. — NCBC GABF Pro-Am Beer Release Party at Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company [Two weeks ago we brewed Joel’s hoppy red ale and to celebrate it’s release we’re throwing a party for all the local homebrew clubs to enjoy.  $PAYG]

Exton, Pa.
Thu. 8/18; 5 p.m. — Stone Tap Takeover at The Drafting Room in Exton, Pa. [Featuring Stone Mocha IPA, Stone RuinTen Triple IPA, Who You Callin' Wussie Pilsner, and Farking Wheaton W00tstout.  $PAYG]
Fri. 8/19; 4 p.m.-6 p.m. — Dark Horse Sampling at Exton Beverage Company [Tasting samples of beers from Dark Horse.  $Free]

Gettysburg, Pa.
Sat. 8/20; 2:30 p.m.-7 p.m. — Gettysburg Brew Fest at Lutheran Theological Seminary [Begin your experience with an impressive cannonade, then enjoy the finest craft beers and hard ciders ever assembled in Gettysburg– over 150 beers and ciders from 50 of the top brewers in the U.S.  $20-$70]

Lancaster, Pa.
Fri. 8/19; 5 p.m. — Columbia Kettle Works Tap Takeover at Isaac's Pickle Bar [All taps will be from Columbia Kettle Works, August's Featured Brewery.  $PAYG]

Media, Pa.
Thu. 8/18; 5 p.m.-7 p.m. — Rivertowne at Pinocchio's [Beers from Rivertowne.  $PAYG]

Perkasie, Pa.
Sat. 8/20; 12 p.m.-7 p.m. — Freshie Fresh Hopped IPA Release at Free Will Brewing Company [Featuring local hops from Sunny Brae Hops and local malt from Deer Creek Malthouse.  $PAYG]

Philadelphia, Pa.
Thu. 8/18; 3 p.m.-10 p.m. — PBW Presents: Beer Garden & Tailgate at Evil Genius Brewing Company in Philadelphia, Pa. [Philly Beer Week personalities will man the PAYG taps, serving as special guest bartenders and selling $10 grab bags filled with all the best beer swag and one-of-a-kind prizes we could gather. Plus, plenty of photo opportunities with the Hammer of Glory.  $PAYG]
Fri. 8/19; 3 p.m.-6 p.m. — Fat Head's Sampling at Bell Beverage [Tasting samples of beers from Fat Head's.  $Free]
Fri. 8/19 through Sun. 8/21; Hours vary — Pop-Up Brew Garden Strikes Back at Evil Genius Beer Company [Join Evil Genius Beer Company and Home Brewed Events as we host the third weekend of pop-up events at the new brewery opening soon in Philly! The Evil Genius Brew Garden is family and dog friendly.  $PAYG]
Sat. 8/20; 1 p.m.-4 p.m. — Crabfest 2016 at City Tap House-University City [Enjoy all-you-can-eat Maryland Blue Crab, while jammin' to live music by Ear Me Now. 2SP joins us.  $35]
Sun. 8/21; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. — Cider Sunday at McCrossen's Tavern [Four draft offerings from Austin EastCiders, including Original, Texas Honey Hopped, and Pineapple. We'll be making cider cocktails as well. Outside games and music from DJ Sideswipe are also on the menu.  $PAYG]
Mon. 8/22; 6 p.m.-8 p.m. — Bottle Shop Happy Hour at Local 44 [Tasting samples of beers from ShawneeCraft.  $Free]
Mon. 8/22 through Sat. 8/27; All night — Big Ass BBQ Week with Half Acre at Uptown Beer Garden [Chef will be serving BBQ specials from the grill all week, and Chicago's amazing Half Acre Brewing is taking over the taps at one of our two bars.  $PAYG]
Tue. 8/23; 4 p.m. — Wilderbru with Draai Laag at Brü Craft & Wurst [Get wild with the articulate wild/funky/sour ales from Pittsburgh's Draai Laag Brewing Company.  $PAYG]
Tue. 8/23; All Day — 5th Anniversary Celebration at Lucky's Last Chance [Stay tuned for details.  $PAYG]
Wed. 8/24; 5 p.m. — Beer School with Draai Laag at Local 44 [Free samples of each beer we will discuss are offered as our treat to you during the class. You can "pay what you wish", but you have to pay something.  $PAYG]
Wed. 8/24; 7 p.m.-9 p.m. — U Buy The Glass at The Abbaye [Ballast Point Brewing keepsake refillable pint glass, raffle prizes, and giveaways.  $PAYG]

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Writing This Ship: Part 2 - Eating and Drinking well in Northeast Philly

(John Primavera, co-owner, P² Lounge; Katie Tella, Jack's Abby; and Bruce Santino, Chef, P² Lounge)

(The four-course menu pairing Jack's Abby craft lagers from Framingham, Mass. with food from P_Square Lounge on August 10, 2016.)

Northeast Philly. What a fascinating place comprised of the Lower Northeast and the Greater (or Far?) Northeast. Depending upon how you draw the dividing lines, Northeast Philly stretches out along the always-maddening Roosevelt Boulevard and constitutes roughly a third of the city's land mass as well as population.

My first introduction to it was around 40 years ago as a kid visiting my great uncle and great aunt who lived just a couple of blocks from Cottman and Frankford Avenues. Who could have guessed that decades later, I'd cover the beer scene just a few blocks in one direction (Grey Lodge Pub - more on their 20th anniversary party in an upcoming post) and a few miles in the other direction at Macaroni's Restaurant and its new P² Lounge in the Bustleton neighborhood.

But what continues to, on the other hand, frustratingly fascinate me is how more quality beer hasn't shown up in NE Philly. Grey Lodge has had a long and well-earned monopoly on great beer with its classic Philly neighborhood-style bar for years. Anyone else come to mind? Even as you push closer to the city limits, toward the farther stretches of the Greater Northeast and the more affluent neighborhoods....anyone?

Well, how about I finally get to the point? I was invited to attend the first beer dinner at P² Lounge (or P Square, if you prefer) last week. They brought in Katie Tella from Jack's Abby, the Framingham, Mass.-based based brewery which continues to position itself for significant growth throughout the region. Did I mention that they are 100% lager-based brewery? And how well they do what they do?

As for the new P² Lounge, I could share with you the full back story that I learned of last week from co-owner John Primavera or I could point you to Danya Henninger's excellent portrayal of it in a column she wrote a little while back. She covers a lot in the Philly area and covers food and beverage quite well.

The nutshell version is that there's been a restaurant at this location since 1986 that the current owners have worked at. In 1993, they acquired it as Macaroni's and in recent years have completely rebuilt it and now, even more recently, used the space behind Macaroni's to open P² Lounge. But, save a few bits and bytes for me here and go read Danya's piece; it covers the restaurant's and brothers' full stories quite well.

I can't say anything about the Macaroni side of the business without having first dined there, but suffice to say from the decor and menu review, it's moved up significantly on the list of future places to dine.

The "backyard" P² Lounge, however, I can talk quite highly about as what has a leg up to be the most comfortable outdoor dining in the area. As you'll see in the pictures below, at the center of P² Lounge is a large enclosed and climate controlled bar with a high ceiling, full length glass windows, and accordion doors to open in nice weather. Around the bar's exterior is all manner of seating from a long hightop, bench seating, and standard table seating.

From inside the bar as well as from at most of the outdoor tables, customers have a view of the P² Lounge kitchen, which is headed by Chef Bruce Santino. Plenty of greenery and umbrellas shield the dining and bar area from direct sunlight as well as provide an extra level of privacy from the bustling neighborhood streets.

The visual greeting of P² Lounge as well as a couple of pre-dinner drinks set the stage for what then was a very well-conceived and executed dinner. Jack's Abby has been around for roughly five years but my first experience with the all-craft lager brewery wasn't until during Philly Beer Week 2015 at Bierstube during a co-event with my Beer Lover's Mid-Atlantic book promotion. I'd heard plenty of praise for their beers in advance and the tastings I'd done that evening validated the praise.

Katie Tella, regional sales rep for the brewery, was on hand to walk the dinner guests through each course along with Chef Santino. At this time, southeastern Pennsylvania is their most distant market. Her account of the beer hall at the brewery back in Massachusetts had me researching the brewery even more the following day.

She mentioned that the brewery output 19,000 barrels of beer last year and is on track for 35,000 in 2016. Currently in the Philly-area market, we can routinely find Hoponius Union IPL, Smoke & Dagger Black Lager, Calyptra Session IPL, House Lager Helles, Leisure Time Wheat Lager, and a limited supply of Cranberry Berliner Sour Wheat Lager (select bottle shops). Copper Legend Octoberfest will be here soon as well. As a result of this dinner, a Boston-area trip is a little higher on my travel list than it was just a couple weeks ago.

(First course: Jack's Abby Sunny Ridge Pilsner paired with Ahi tuna, melon, & heirloom tomato salad)

Back to Bustleton. The dinner began nicely with a light salad of melon, tomato and Ahi tuna that the Sunny Ridge Pilsner (5.1% ABV) played nicely with. Perfect beginning. Not too overwhelming. Not too filling. Nice array of flavors on the plate that went quite nicely with the clean and crisp pilsner.

(Second course: Jack's Abby Leisure Time Lager paired with charred fennel & crab raviolo)

The second course continued the theme of a variety of flavors on the plate. Crab, corn, and fennel with an excellent Leisure Time Lager (4.8% ABV) that brought its accompanying herbal flavors of lemongrass and orange peel.

(Third course: Jack's Abby Calyptra Session IPL paired with Grilled Wagyu Zabuton Steak and wild mushrooms)

The Calyptra (4.9% ABV) might be referred to as a "session" IPL, but it certainly had enough backbone to stand up to the rich and savory flavors in the Wagyu beef and mushrooms dish.

(Fourth course: Jack's Abby  Cranberry Berliner Weisse paired with Almond Pound Cake, mango sorbet, and vanilla rum crème anglaise)

The dinner was closed out with what I was calling the best pairing of the evening. Though, I thought I'd given that crown to each preceding course, the Cranberry Berliner Weisse (3.5% ABV) worked so well with the mango sorbet, sliced mangos and almonds, and the cranberries. While I often tout rich desserts with the big burly likes of imperial stouts and barleywines, this was such a refreshing and welcome departure, particularly at the tail end of a blistering hot and humid day.

I'm looking forward to a return visit soon at Macaroni/P² Lounge both to learn more about the Italian menu offering as well as to monitor as they grow their beer program and education on both sides of the bar in Northeast Philly.

(Jack's Abby on full display in the striking P2 Lounge in the Bustleton neighborhood of Northeast Philly.)

(Jack's Abby Sunny Ridge Pilsner getting things off to a great start at P2 Lounge.)

(Great attention to detail at the new P2 Lounge behind the Macaroni's Restaurant in Northeast Philly's Bustleton neighborhood.)

(The most comfortable outdoor dining in all of Northeast Philly?)

(The simple exterior of Macaroni's leads to a darkened and comfortable dining room and further to P² Lounge out back.)

(More comfy exterior environs at P2 Lounge)

(More comfy exterior environs at P2 Lounge)

(More comfy exterior environs at P2 Lounge)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Writing This Ship: Part 1 - A Return to BCTC at Brewery Ommegang

(Click for a full gallery of BCTC weekend pictures)

You may recall last week when I referred to getting my posting mojo back here in this fabulous space of The Brew Lounge, now crossing into its 12th year. Got the events calendar rolling again first after an uncharacteristic two months off.

Now I've got quite a laundry list of material to share with you. And instead of beginning with the oldest first, how about we kick things off here with a look back to last weekend and the annual Belgium Comes To Cooperstown (BCTC) at Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY.

I haven't been to Ommegang's hotly sought-after BCTC event since 2013. Needed a couple of years off to focus on writing and selling this little book project that I was working on if you recall ;-)

So of course I was looking to see how much the weekend of festivities had changed in three years. Glad to report that save for the seemingly always-increasing price (this year, $275 for the full-weekend-VIP and $110 for the Saturday tasting tent only), not much has changed...and that's a pretty darn good thing. While the price almost always goes up from year to year, the spirit has remained the same (more on that later). Full disclosure: my admission was provided by the brewery and my +1's was not.

Back in 2013, one of my oldest friends accompanied me to the over-the-top celebration of beer, food, and life in Cooperstown. This time it was my nephew's turn. Me having been to the festival, now, nine times, it's refreshingly interesting to see the festival through a first-timer's eyes and glass. But the routine was the same as always. Check in. Get credentials. Stake out a flat piece of campground. Set up. Grab a beer (or is that vice versa?) and begin to unwind and settle in. Tip #1 to newcomers: This is a must before the afternoon and evening get away from you, darkness falls, and you find your tent and bedding not set up.

As with every other year, making friends out of perfect strangers camping in close quarters was not a problem at all. By the time the tent and canopy was set up, before you knew it, our campsite was nearly one with the good people from NYC and Baltimore that we became friendly with and shared our first few beers - the first of many during the weekend.

Then it was off to the Retail Shop for some purchases. Tip #2 to newcomers: Make your retail purchases at Ommegang's shop on Friday and miss the crowds in there on Saturday. Because, if the night's weather is chilly and you need a hoody, they'll most likely be sold out by Saturday.

A few more beers, a few more friends, and a bit more walkabout and it was time to indulge in the decadent six-course meal that runs the better part of 4-5 hours by the time all is said and done and eaten and drunk. No shortage of beer (Ommegang and Duvel beers only during dinner) or food, live music, and good times to get the night into full swing.

The nighttime is much as you've probably heard - lots of campsite sitting, campsite wandering, beer sharing, bonfire watching, music listening and dancing, and plenty more. My nephew noted that it's really not a lot different than the atmosphere of overnight music camping that he's done in the past.

Saturday morning's cobweb clearing came courtesy of the quaint village of Cooperstown, less than two square miles but home to a beautiful lake, museums, the Baseball Hall of Fame, a farmers market, and more baseball-themed businesses than you could probably imagine. Some went to the lake, some went to the Hall of Fame, my nephew and I went to the farmers market (and brought back some corn-on-the-cob and Camambert cheese from a local farmer for some later campsite cooking), took in some sightseeing (his first time to Cooperstown), and watched a couple innings of baseball at Doubleday Field.

We even squeezed in two beer stops during our excursion in to town. The first was a surprise from a new-ish farm-based brewery in nearby Oneonta/Milford called Willow Creek. Enjoyed the Pale Ale and Stout enough to bring a four-pack home with me.

Then, finally after all these years of passing them by, we stopped and spent around 45 minutes in Cooperstown Brewing Company's tasting room. Learned that the parent company of Cooperstown had recently acquired their contract brewer - Davidson Brothers in Glens Falls. That little newsy bit coupled with a new brewer (since I'd last tasted beers from them), the story became more intriguing for me. Then I tasted the beers and was floored; what an improvement. The Nine Man Golden Ale makes for a tasty, low-alcohol summer refresher. The Backyard IPA is an excellent, English-leaning IPA (not enough of these around imo). And the Old Slugger leans English Pale as well. So happy to have taken the time to get to know these guys all over again.

That was the perfect segue to lunch, a few beers and ciders on the patio with the Duvel/Ommegang family, and ramping up the energy for the mid-afternoon tasting portion of the festival. The Saturday tasting has always been a significant portion of the weekend; now, however, it's bigger than ever. Two full-size tents of breweries and now focused more sharply on New York State breweries - or does it just seem that way just because there's more of them than ever? That was a good thing. Though I miss brewers and reps from breweries no longer participating in the festival, my focus was able to become more trained on the up-and-coming guys I hadn't previously seen. Which made the four-hour session go by seemingly faster than ever.

In this growth, however, a bit of what put the Belgium in Belgium Comes To Cooperstown has slipped. I drank beers ranging all across the spectrum, not just Belgian or Belgian-styled. Yes there were plenty of abbey beers, funky beers, saison, etc. But I also drank lagers, bocks, and saw way more IPAs (and other hop centric beers) than I needed to.

But that didn't make it any worse and, in fact, in some cases was nice to have a "calibration beer" to reset the palate along the way. In alphabetical order, ones that stood out to me included:
  • Allagash Nancy (sour)
  • Binghamton Purple Rain (gose)
  • Brewery at CIA Soigne (saison)
  • Ellicottville Raspberry Beret (sour)
  • Forbidden Root Sublime Ginger (wheat)
  • Galaxy St. Stusan (belgian blonde)
  • Moustache Franco 'Murica (saison) and Blueberry & Ginger (tripel)
  • Rushing Duck Bauli (saison)
  • Sloop Juice Bomb (ipa) and Sauer Peach (berliner weisse)
  • Telegraph Obscura Vulpine (barrel-aged red ale)
And apparently there were nearly another 400 beers from close to 100 breweries. If I'd found them all, I probably still wouldn't be upright to share them with you.

There's probably much more to say, but you likely have already stopped reading. I'm constantly amazed both at the number of first-timers that I encounter at the festival. And also amazed at how many I still hear talk about the festival as a bucket list-type of beer event for them.

No doubt it continues to be an unforgettable experience and a Top 10-style beer event experience in the country. Is it the same as attendees recall 10+ years ago? Not in scale or price, but in the spirit, camaraderie, and celebration of great beer, food, and people - Yes, absolutely it is.